Computer virus suspected at schools

Arundel officials shut down system at signs of `Chernobyl'

April 27, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County school officials shut down the district's 7,000 personal computers yesterday after eight terminals showed symptoms of a menacing computer virus named for the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

The Chernobyl virus erases a computer's hard drive and replaces its vital system settings with gibberish. Believed to have originated in Taiwan, it was timed to strike yesterday, on the Russian nuclear accident's 13th anniversary.

When school officials arrived at the district's central office in Annapolis at 8: 30 a.m., they found eight of their computers malfunctioning, and immediately suspected the worst.

"The computers wouldn't do anything," said Robert C. Leib, the district's director of business services. "They just sat there."

Having heard about the threat of the Chernobyl virus, Leib called for the immediate shutdown of the remainder of the central office's 250 computers, and about 6,750 computers in the rest of the district's 122 schools. All computers in the district are linked, he said.

About 50 technicians embarked on an aggressive "cleaning" process that will involve protecting every machine in the system. It could take until Friday for that effort to be completed, Leib said.

The school's computers handle everything from student attendance records to employee payroll. Officials described the extended shutdown as a major inconvenience.

"Certainly it's serious, to the extent that people are not able to do their work," said Jane W. Doyle, the district's spokeswoman. "We are so dependent on our computers that when something like this happens, it's a little shocking and disconcerting."

If Leib's diagnosis was correct, Anne Arundel schools are among the few places in the United States to have become infected.

By midday yesterday, the Computer Emergency Response Team at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh could confirm 70 isolated virus outbreaks in the United States. More infections might not have been discovered.

Leib said it might take some time to find out what weak link allowed the Chernobyl program to invade the school system's computers.

"We're still looking at why we didn't know it was there," he said. "A lot of people say it takes things to go wrong to wake you up. Well, we're awake."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 4/27/99

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