Pest Control: Virus-Infected Computers Can Create Havoc until the Bug Is Identified and Exterminated

By McCune, Jenny C. | Management Review, May 1997 | Go to article overview

Pest Control: Virus-Infected Computers Can Create Havoc until the Bug Is Identified and Exterminated


McCune, Jenny C., Management Review


It started innocently enough. A strange phrase -- Wazzu! -- at the bottom of a document. A few misplaced words in a file. Stubborn word-processing documents that would only store to the "template" portion of Microsoft Word. I figured my touch-typist fingers had gone spastic and had created this mess when I wasn't looking.

Then I realized there was more to it than that. I deleted "Wazzu!" only to have it reappear again and again. The misplaced-word syndrome kept cropping up. Something funny was going on. Then it dawned on me: My PC had been infected with a virus.

Experiences like mine are becoming commonplace. The birth of the PC in 1981 helped spawn viruses. Early personal computers required users to load the operating system by floppy diskette each time they used the computer. Virus writers would just insert a piece of "malicious" code into the boot-up diskette, which would infect the PC when the user turned it on. Today, PCs can "catch" viruses from diskettes, by downloading programs from the internet or simply by opening up a file that is attached to an e-mail.

That's how I believe my PC caught the Wazzu! virus. Like most computer laypeople, it took me awhile to diagnose the virus, so I can't be 100 percent certain where I caught it. To the best of my knowledge, it occurred when I was swapping files with the editor of a newsletter via America Online. His computer was infected, and he, in turn, infected mine when I opened up edited stories that he sent me electronically.

Viruses like Wazzu! are called "macro" viruses because they are macro programs -- little snippets of computer code -- contained in a program, such as Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel, that spread from one application file. Macros are the virus du jour because they are simpler to write than the older "boot sector" viruses, and easier to spread electronically. Basically, an infected file will be sent as an attachment to an electronic message. When users open the file in their application, the application's other files get infected. "These macro viruses have given viruses a new lease on life", says Stephen Cobb, director of special projects at the National Computer Security Association (NCSA).

To take stock of how fast macro viruses spread, just look at the first macro virus, the Microsoft Word Concept virus. Concept was first "seen in the wild," as virus hunters say, in the summer of 1995, right after Windows95 was released. Today it's the top-ranking virus. Another macro virus, Laroux, has been discovered in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. Why do Microsoft applications seem particularly vulnerable? Because they are so popular -- a virus writer won't bother writing a virus for a program that nobody uses -- and because the applications themselves are easy to write add-ons to, including viruses.

Any company with PCs that swap information with computers outside the corporation is susceptible. In fact, 98 percent of 300 corporations surveyed by NCSA in 1996 said they had had a close encounter with a computer virus, and 90 percent had at least one encounter a month. A virus can attack any company: Large corporations such as Rockwell International, Lockheed Martin and Chevron have reported viruses.

Even a "harmless" virus, one that simply replicates and doesn't wipe out computer-stored information, can be expensive to clean up. …

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