The narrow, windowless room is guarded by electronic locks and
the red-beam light rays of motion detectors. Two dozen computers
blink as programs run. A couple of filing cabinets have bars and
David Chess unlocks one metal cabinet, gently opening a drawer
that holds row after row of unassuming computer disks. "This is our
collection," Chess said with pride, as if he were a wine collector
showing off his cellar. "It's a complete set of the world's known
A tall, bearded 36-year-old computer scientist, Chess works at
the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, where he specializes in
the detection, analysis and extermination of computer viruses. He
is a member of the small group of professional virus hunters,
estimated at fewer than 100 people scattered around the world from
Silicon Valley to Reykjavik, Iceland.
Their field is only a decade old, tracing its origins to 1987
when the early viruses like Brain and Jerusalem began to infect
personal computers. Yet today, the antivirus experts find
themselves not only in a fast-paced, rapidly growing business but
also being forced to pursue innovations in artificial intelligence
and computer-immune systems to stay a step ahead of new viruses
spreading over the Internet.
"With the Internet, viruses can spread 10 times faster than
they ever did before," said Peter Tippett, president of the
National Computer Security Association, an antivirus group in
Today, the threat posed by computer viruses is a matter of
debate. As in biology, a computer virus lives on its host. The ones
that are immediately destructive are the least likely to spread.
But even so-called benign computer viruses can cause problems
because they are unwanted strands of software code, which can act
as bugs. For example, the Concept virus, which infects Word
documents, is not deliberately destructive. But it causes bug-like
problems, altering data or hindering printing, in 2 to 5 percent of
the infected cases, estimates the National Computer Security
Association. The cost of all computer viruses to users in terms of
lost time, cleanup and repair is more than $2 billion a year, the
Virus hunters are engaged in the digital-age equivalent of
medieval warfare, an escalating battle between arms and armor.
Their adversaries - the virus writers - traditionally have been a
few hundred bright, bored teen-age boys. These nerdish vandals give
themselves swaggering nicknames like Death Star, Dark Avenger or
Tough Guy, and they often belong to gangs like Nuke, Vlad,
Phalcon/Skism or the Digital Hackers Alliance.
Most virus writers are the graffiti scribblers of cyberspace,
as only about one third of viruses are deliberately destructive.
But other virus writers are closer to digital arsonists, writing
virus programs intended to crash computers or erase data. (Legally,
the malicious intent is difficult to prove. Only in a few nations,
including Italy and Switzerland, is distributing a computer virus
against the law.)
Typically, virus writers abandon their adolescent mischief when
they reach their 20s. "Most virus writers stop when they grow up,
get a girlfriend or a real job," said Fridrik Skulason, the
president of Frisk Software International, an antivirus software
company in Iceland.
Yet the profile of the typical virus writer seems to be
changing, too. Sarah Gordon, security analyst for Command Software
Systems, an antivirus company in Jupiter, Fla., specializes in the
sociology of virus writers. Recently, she has noticed a difference,
as more virus writers are in their 20s and 30s.
"The new virus writer is a whole different breed, older, more
talented, using better equipment and less likely to be linked to
groups," Gordon said.
More than anything else, the Internet is changing the craft of
the virus hunter. For years, computer viruses spread mainly by
people physically exchanging infected diskettes. …