Scientists try studying the human body to find ways to combat digital intruders

April 05, 1999|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

While thousands of computer users spent long hours trying to purge the Melissa virus from their infected machines last week, Dr. Steve R. White spent long hours making his PC sick.

A theoretical physicist turned bug hunter, White runs IBM's Anti-Virus Center in Hawthorne, N.Y., one of a handful of places where computer viruses are methodically captured, dissected and cataloged with the hopes of finding a way to stop them.

To keep viruses from getting the upper hand, White and his colleagues have turned to a fitting source of inspiration: the human body. Drawing from disciplines ranging from immunology to neural networking, they've developed a complex, automated virus response technology they call the Digital Immune System. They plan to deploy it for the first time this summer.

To reach White's lab, visitors must pass a watchful lobby security guard, then run a gantlet of bolted doors, motion detectors and other anti-intruder measures that White politely declines to discuss. Finally, they arrive at a door decorated with this tabloid headline from the Weekly World News: "Deadly Virus Turns Home Computers Into Bombs!"

The security is understandable. Inside the windowless lab are two gray, padlocked filing cabinets stuffed with thousands of multi-colored 3.5-inch floppy disks. White calls it "one of the most dangerous collections of software in the world."

The disks contain about 20,000 computer viruses, binary bugs with names such as Stoned, Ripper, Wazzu -- and now Melissa. Put one in your disk drive and there's a good chance you can kiss your bank statements, love letters, family photos, and everything else on your hard drive goodbye.

"I hate them all," White says.

Fifteen years ago computer viruses were virtually unknown outside computer labs. The few deployed by early high-tech hooligans took months, even years to work their way around the globe.

No longer. Today, researchers estimate that as many as 10 viruses are created each day. Most quickly die off, surviving only in virus "zoos" maintained by scientists like White. But a few hundred thrive "in the wild," infecting and replicating in computers around the world. And, as the Melissa episode demonstrates, the Internet makes it possible for viruses to sweep through global computer networks not in months -- but hours.

"Viruses are starting to spread faster than humans can respond," says White.

On its face, a computer virus doesn't seem like a tough customer. After all, it is nothing more than a tiny snippet of software code designed to slip into a computer, reproduce and leap to a new electronic host. The smallest virus in the IBM collection is less than a dozen lines long.

But their small size often makes viruses hard to detect until it's too late. Luckily, most are merely annoying, ddesigned to change file names at random or cause all the letters on your screen to crumble into a pile. Others, however, are the ruthless binary equivalents of Ebola: Rampaging through a hard drive, they trash everything in their path.

These software demons have been around since the 1970s, when scientists at Xerox Corp.'s PARC research lab in Palo Alto, Calif., wrote a piece of self-replicating software called "Worm."

They were working on a program that could travel through PARC's nascent computer network and automatically perform routine maintenance tasks. But one morning the scientists discovered that the software had taken on a life of its own, invading new machines on the network and causing them to crash, all without human intervention.

The first PC virus to thrive in the wild was called Brain. Written in 1986 by two self-taught programmers in Lahore, Pakistan, it spread when computer users shared infected floppy disks. A year after its release, the virus had infected more than 100,000 floppies and spread as far as the University of Delaware.

Since then, virus scares have become regular events. In 1992 the Michelangelo virus promised to wipe out computer disk drives around the world on March 6, the artist's birthday. The virus fueled a media frenzy -- but turned out to be a dud. Outright hoaxes aren't uncommon either. "Share Fun" and "Good Times," two mythical viruses, turned into urban legends that still circulate in breathlessly worded e-mail warnings.

"There's a decent amount of hype over computer viruses," concedes Carey Nachenberg, chief researcher at Symantec Corp.'s anti-virus lab in Santa Monica, Calif. "But Melissa was not overhyped at all."

Melissa belongs to the newest and fastest growing strain, "macro" viruses, so named because they reside in mini-programs -- known as macros -- created with a relatively simple programming language built into Microsoft's popular Word and Excel software. In 1996 researchers had identified 40 macro viruses. Today there are several thousand.

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