University avoids effects of virus with preparation

Stacy Jo

A day off work last week proved even more productive than anyone had expected.
The floating holiday last Friday likely played a big part in saving the University from falling prey to the Melissa computer virus. But the school’s virus worries aren’t over yet.
While copycat viruses are still a threat, Shih-Pau Yen, the director of Academic and Distributed Computing Services, said the University managed to dodge the effects of Melissa, which first showed up during last Friday’s holiday.
Disguised as a message from a friend or colleague, Melissa strikes by sending infected documents as attachments to e-mail. Victims who open the infected attachments release a virus into their computer.
The virus — named Melissa after a word in its coding — attacks victims’ online address books by sending duplicates of the infected e-mail to the first 50 people listed in the address book. While seemingly harmless, the virus has severely crippled computer systems at several major institutions by swamping e-mail servers with wasteful, virus-infected messages.
Those hard-hit by the virus include local electronics maker Honeywell Inc. and the North Dakota state government.
Melissa shows up as an e-mail with the subject line, “Important message from,” followed by the name of the person whose address book was raided.
“The tendency on Friday would have been to open (the infected document),” said Phil Kachelmyer, manager of user services for University computing.
Because national news media spread warnings about the virus during the weekend, University officials were prepared to use a filter to fight off a clogged system Monday morning. But their preparations have proven unnecessary thus far.
Several members of the University community received the document that is attached to the virus, but they recognized the file before they opened it, Kachelmyer said. He said one person from the Institute of Technology received the document and tried to open it, but was saved from spreading the virus when the document inexplicably did not open.
Kachelmyer said most departmental machines already have anti-virus software installed, but added that news reports during the weekend educated most people enough to identify the virus by Monday morning.
While the virus does not damage files, Kachelmyer said Melissa’s dangers lie in its rapid spreading, which leads to network overloading and — what might be the most destructive aspect of all — wasted time.
Frank Grewe, manager of Internet services for University computing, said systems staff members have been monitoring the University’s central mail servers more closely than usual since Melissa’s appearance.
“You can’t just trust any arbitrary program that you get,” Grewe said.
He said some University community members could be affected by the virus without the system’s detection. Because the central system processes 300 to 600 e-mail messages each minute, it would take thousands of extra messages before the staff would notice the increase.
If the virus has impacted some computers unbeknownst to computing services, not enough people have fallen victim to create the crippling exponential distribution of the message, Grewe said.
Although the University has managed to avoid Melissa’s effects, solutions such as filters are only quick fixes, rather than preventative measures for future computer virus threats, Grewe said.
“That’s only a very temporary solution,” Grewe said. He added that the speed with which Melissa’s filter was produced — Melissa was discovered on Friday and the filter was available by Monday — highlights the filter’s limits.
“(The virus) could certainly come and get you multiple times,” Kachelmyer said. Because Melissa cannot mutate itself, it would always return in the same form, he said. But he added that the impact of being hit multiple times is not necessarily any worse than being hit once.
Copycat viruses are also a possibility. One strain, called “Papa,” has circulated through computers around the world but has proven not as effective or dangerous as Melissa.
Still, Grewe said, “It would be impossible to keep up with somebody who was creative.”