They’re out there, waiting for the perfect moment to creep out of the boot sector and mangle files, devour prized documents and issue brash insults.
Computer viruses mostly annoy, sometimes amuse and occasionally distort or destroy. Like human viruses, the computer bugs take many forms; infecting, multiplying and propagating a host of symptoms along the way.
Managers of the University’s public computing labs say the labs — once known for nagging virus problems — have been cleaned up in recent years, thanks to better operating programs and frequent upgrades to anti-virus software.
Yet despite tighter security measures, the threat of lost computing capability — not to mention lost time and term papers — remains.
A computer virus is a program designed to attack disks, self-replicate and spread out on its own. Spreading from machine to machine by piggy-backing on another program or diskette, these codes infect other systems while hiding in the likes of disks and e-mail attachments.
Some relatively benign viruses merely splash messages on screens that promote world peace or the legalization of marijuana, while nastier bugs can erase disks, slow up hard drives and make programs inaccessible.
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Downloading information from shady Internet sites and e-mail attachments are some of the many ways viruses can enter the lives of novice computer users.
Novice or not, users are subject to real risks in the virtual world.
According to a 1994 Minnesota Daily report, an estimated 5,000 known viruses infected IBM-compatible computers that year.
Manufacturers of anti-virus software now believe the total number of viruses — affecting both IBM-compatibles and Macintosh — exceeds 40,000.
Those numbers may be inflated, however: Many viruses are simply variants of others and aren’t classified as separate entities, said Philip Kachelmyer, an information technology manager for Academic and Distributed Computing Services.
“Whether it’s 4,000 or 40,000, it’s a bunch,” he said via e-mail. “Even if it’s as `few’ as 4,000, it is a major problem.”
But is the buzz over bugs worth the worry?
“Absolutely,” said John Ladwig, security architect for Networking and Telecommunications Services, in an e-mail. “Even though most don’t have destructive payloads, there’s always a risk of corrupted programs and files when a hostile program enters your system. Cleaning it up takes time, especially if you have to reinstall applications or the entire operating environment. Or recreate your term paper.”
Other computer experts say people probably shouldn’t be afraid of viruses.
Most are mundane and don’t cause any permanent damage — aside from tying up resources and causing a computer to do strange things, Kachelmyer said. Only in “bizarre cases” do they actually damage computer hardware.
“Not all viruses are damaging,” said Rachel Kile, an information technology professional at the University.
“Prank viruses happen when people want to prove they can do it and gain attention,” Kile said.
Depending on the definition, such pranks can still be damaging. For example, if a student’s paper is due but a prank virus prevents her from printing and she misses her deadline, that’s damaging, Kile said.
Often just the threat of a virus is enough to spread panic among unknowing computer users. The hoax can stir up trouble in the form of wasted time or self-inflicted pain.
“A hoax isn’t necessarily a virus, but they do waste people’s time,” said Randy Lorge, computer support specialist at Kinko’s Copy Center in Stadium Village.
Computer helpline consultant Chris Ament estimates that about two of the “open this e-mail and your computer will explode”-type messages circulate on campus each month.
Hoaxes generally warn users to steer clear of certain e-mail messages, like “Good Times” or “AOL4FREE,” using panic tactics that urge readers to spread the word.
One hoax even had new computer users unwittingly erasing their computers’ hard drives, Lorge said.
A message warned users to safeguard against a pseudo virus by typing the command “C:\format.” Those who followed suit soon discovered their computer had been turned into a blank slate.
Self-replicating codes are nearly as old as the computer itself, yet the number of viruses has exploded in recent years as computers have become widely used and as more and more people learn how to make viruses.
Yet how exactly the bugs swarm into campus computers is subject to debate.
“It’s initially done by someone with ill intent,” said Brian Donnell, a St. Paul network administrator.
“If someone knows they had the virus, they could bring it to a lab computer and infect the machine. The next person comes in and fires up the document and — poof — they’re infected.”
He said “virus kits” found on the Internet padded the propagation of computer viruses.
Lorge said he’s curious about what motivates people to spend the time writing virus programs and sending them out.
“Viruses are written by anarchists, basically,” said Jamil Jabr, information technology manager for the St. Paul campus.
“It’s really unscrupulous,” he said, lamenting that more often it’s students — rather than the economic or political elite — who needlessly suffer. “What did they achieve? That they hurt some student?” Jabr said.
“I’ve kind of joked that the same people who are writing the (anti-virus) software are making the problem,” he said laughingly. “I doubt it’s true, but you have to wonder sometimes because there’s good money in virus protection software.”
Protection from electronic infections comes from a variety of sources.
“Use write-protected disks, don’t read e-mail attachments, put virus protection software on your system, and only download information from reputable Internet sites,” Kile said.
Write protection — locking the tab in the back of a floppy disk — is one way to help prevent the spread of viruses in campus computer labs, she said.
E-mail messages alone don’t contain viruses, Kile added, “but sending attachments is a very prevalent way of spreading a virus.”
Ladwig strongly emphasized the need to run anti-viral software regularly, and to keep it updated. “There are many new hostile programs being created all the time,” he said.
New ones spring up every day, according to the University computing services Web site.
Numerous virus detection and removal software packages are posted on the Web. The University distributes “F-Prot Professional for Windows” on its Internet Starter Kit CD.
“Checking for updates once a week, or once a month, isn’t too often,” Ladwig said.
From lab to lab
In past years, the University’s public computer labs were notoriously swamped with electronic infections.
A 1994 Daily investigation of seven Minneapolis computer labs operated by the University’s computing services found problems with virus security in labs such as Lind Hall and Walter Library.
Like most public labs on the Twin Cities campus, the problems that Lind 26 had with macroviruses — ones that infect documents by hitching a ride in Windows programs — subsided in the past year, said Spencer Sanborn, a senior in computer science and lead consultant for Lind Hall.
When viruses hit Lind Hall, they tend to spread to many machines, he said, “Students will just plop disks in and move on to the next when one freezes up.”
Sanborn said that Walter Library, one of a handful of labs he’s worked in during the past three years, tends to get more viruses than others because of its higher volume of less experienced, first-time users.
But Tyler Angell, lead consultant at the Walter lab, said that more infections occur because of the sheer number of users, heavy Internet use and the increased vulnerability of older computers.
Peter Oberg, who manages the West Bank public labs, said three out of 100 computers are infected with viruses on a daily basis in his zone.
The macroviruses that strike have never led to a “catastrophe” — they’ve never lost any hard drives — and are swiftly eliminated with anti-virus software, he said.
“It normally comes from frat and sorority houses, for us,” Oberg said. He added that the residence halls are also the origins of viruses because when more people put disks into a computer, the risk increases.
“They’re not paying attention and they don’t care. They just want to get a paper done and print it,” Oberg said.
Lorge agreed that students might be getting infected files from exchanging files or disks. However, he said even if the University diligently scans out viruses on a regular basis, without current software it may be missing some newer viruses.
Eric Hanson, computer science junior and lab attendant for the West Bank’s largest computer lab in the Hubert H. Humphrey Center, said his lab updates anti-virus software every month.
The roots of lab infections, Hanson said, may be in departmental labs and from home computers where computers lack adequate software.
“A lot of it (also) depends on the user’s knowledge,” he said.