A twisted 'Michelangelo'

March 05, 1992

What a way to remember a Renaissance master! On Friday, computer experts say, an act of vandalism comes to light on the terminals of personal computer users worldwide. A virus, a short, vicious program called "Michelangelo," named for the great Italian artist, is set to erase the programs and data files in permanent storage on the hard disks of IBM-compatible computers.

What this virus does on its target date is to wipe everything from storage and write gibberish in its place, so the damaged files cannot be recovered even after they are gone.

It's already surfaced in many locations. Intel Corp. in California found 839 disks of its LANSpool utility software contaminated and had to halt shipments. Up to 500 Leading Edge desktop computers went out to customers carrying the virus, as did an estimated 900 demonstration disks for an electronic mail system and 20,000 software packages from a German company.

This goes beyond the mischievous pranks legendary among computer science students. It surpasses the infamous "worm" that Robert Morris unleashed into academic computing networks a few years ago. That invader, written to capitalize on a left-open back door in computer communications, merely took up computer time. "Michelangelo" deliberately destroys files. It has already infected 2,400 computers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, threatening to erase term papers, research data, software in development and anything else of value -- and sending technicians scrambling. Experts say up to 5 million computers world-wide could be at risk.

The worst thing about such attacks is that they are launched not by amateurs playing around on the electronic bulletin boards popular with personal computer users, but by professionals. "Michelangelo" infestations were spread via master disks provided by subcontractors to major vendors. In police terms, this is an "inside job," planned by people whose cleverness and vanity exceed their morality.

Computer experts warn all users to make frequent backups of their data, to keep protected "boot disks" in case a virus does infect their disks and to use commercially prepared "scanning" programs to stop viruses before they cause trouble. A study last November by the National Computer Security Association found six of 10 businesses surveyed had run into viruses. One in 10 had suffered "disaster." That's enough to make the rest of us take notice and double-check the whereabouts of the disks we so casually shift from machine to machine. With twisted minds so busily at work, safety with computer software must become a top priority.

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