Computer users brace for artful attack Michelangelo virus due to strike today

March 06, 1992|By Leslie Cauley and Patricia Meisol | Leslie Cauley and Patricia Meisol,Staff Writers

The silicon hits the fan today.

"Michelangelo," the dreaded computer virus that has inspired headlines for weeks, was scheduled to explode in personal computers around the world today, leaving a trail of unintelligible files in its wake.

As of yesterday, Michelangelo had been found lurking in computers housed in state offices, colleges, businesses and homes, heighteningfear about what today might bring.

Rebecca Tucker breathed a long sigh of relief yesterday as she was handed a copy of a software program that could stop Michelangelo dead in its tracks. "I don't want my computer to die on me just yet. I just bought it," said Mrs. Tucker, clutching an electronic vaccine for the Michelangelo computer virus.

"I know it's going to die one day, but I don't want that to happen too soon."

Mrs. Tucker was one of about 100 people who stopped in yesterday to the Computer Station, a computer store in Towson, to pick up a free copy of a software program that could seek out and destroy the Michelangelo virus.

Michelangelo is so named because it is expected to hit computer users worldwide today, the 517th anniversary of the Renaissance artist's birthday.

The virus causes disks to reformat automatically when machines are turned on, permanently erasing files in the process. It is this characteristic that has earned Michelangelo a reputation as possibly one of the most destructive viruses in the computer world.

The threat of Michelangelo, which affects only International Business Machines Corp. machines and their clones, was enough to bring computer users of all stripes into the software stores yesterday in search of anti-viral programs.

"Just fear," is how Dr. Richard Biggs described his presence at the Computer Station yesterday.

The Owings Mills doctor said the thought of losing billing data on his 2,000 patients to the likes of Michelangelo was just too much to bear.

"Data on 2,000 patients could be gone, just like that," said Dr. Biggs, his anti-viral software firmly in hand.

Mrs. Tucker and Dr. Biggs were two of the lucky ones yesterday: They were able to find anti-viral programs to detect and destroy Michelangelo.

A run on 'cures'

Many others weren't so lucky.

A poll of area software stores found that last-minute runs by PC users had cleared the shelves of anti-viral programs.

Egghead and Babbage's, two of the largest software dealers in the area, reported that their supplies of electronic vaccines against Michelangelo were long gone by yesterday.

The Egghead store in Towson got in a "massive quantity" of anti-viral programs Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and yesterday, said Tom O'Donnell, the store's assistant manager.

But those supplies sold out almost as soon as clerks could stock the shelves, he said.

Yesterday afternoon, Egghead's shelves were bare of any electronic vaccines for Michelangelo.

It was the same story at Babbage's in Owings Mills. David Hill, the store manager, said he sold out earlier this week following an "incredible" raid by PC users concerned about Michelangelo.

Both Prodigy and GEnie, on-line computer services, pitched in to help by offering free anti-viral programs to their users. Both set up special services that allowed subscribers to download the electronic vaccines, which search out and destroy the Michelangelo virus.

Prodigy began offering the free downloading service last Friday. By yesterday, about 60,000 subscribers had downloaded the program, said Brian Ek, a spokesman for Prodigy, a service operated by IBM and Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Prodigy plans to offer the program at least through today, Mr. Ek said. If demand warrants it, that deadline might be extended, he said.

GEnie, which began offering its free anti-viral programs Monday, had 2,000 takers as of yesterday.

Bill Leimbach, director of computer services at Dundalk Community College, said the news media's extensive coverage of the Michelangelo virus is leading everybody to think their computers are in jeopardy.

"And they are getting a bit hysterical," he said.

His college undertook a scan with software that checks for thousands of viruses a few weeks ago after discovering one case of the non-destructive Stoned virus but found no evidence of Michelangelo, he said.

(Stoned, when activated, says, "Your hard drive is stoned" or "Please legalize marijuana," he said.)

Bug surfaces at MVA

One case of the Michelangelo virus was discovered in a sweep of computers at the state Motor Vehicle Administration that began Feb. 12, said Pauline R. Covino, director of the information systems center for the state Department of Transportation. The department also caught two other viruses in its sweep of more than 200 MVA computers.

Mrs. Covino said she had no idea how the viruses got there, "because most of the software we get comes in heat-sealed, treated packages."

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