Classic Computer Magazine Archive ST-Log ISSUE 23 / SEPTEMBER 1988 / PAGE 3


by Clayton Walnum

Let's talk about dangerous maliciousness.

The computer industry has always had more than its share of troublemakers; however, it used to be that these immature and socially retarded individuals limited themselves to leaving obscene messages on bulletin-board systems and performing other mostly harmless pranks. (Yes, we've all read stories about people who've managed to break into large systems and cause serious trouble, but these cases are in the vast minority.) Now we've got a new and potentially disastrous troublemaker: the computer virus.

For those of you who have never heard of a computer virus, let me hasten to tell you that it is not a joke. Though a computer virus is not a disease in the way we think of a disease, it does spread from computer to computer (via floppy disks and telecommunications networks) and can wreak havoc with any computer system it happens to infect.

A computer virus is actually a small program that, when it gets into your computer system, will wait for the proper moment to do as it was instructed. It may show up in subtle ways, such as a few of your files mysteriously disappearing; or it may, in one fell swoop, destroy everything it can get into contact with.

What makes computer viruses so dangerous is that the perpetrators of these "practical jokes" aren't satisfied just to make computing miserable for the home user. According to The Washington Post, "Such viruses have been found at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; International Business Machines Corp.; the House of Representatives; at least six universities; several major networks, such as Compuserve; and several businesses, including the world's largest computer-service company, the $4.4-billion Electronic Data Systems Corp. of Dallas."

Reported in the February 1, 1988, issue of Newsweek was the virus infection of a hospital's computer system. Before the problem was found and eradicated, almost 40% of the patients' records were destroyed.

We're no longer talking about harmless pranks; we're talking about a potential threat to human life. The Newsweek article states, "Scientists worry that viruses could cripple a system like the air-traffic controllers computers." Imagine air-traffic controllers believing that incoming and outgoing planes are in one place when they're really in another. It's frightening.

And, yes, there have even been reports of viruses on the ST computers. The staff of ST-Log hasn't as yet seen firsthand evidence of one, but people claim that ST viruses are making the rounds, and there's even a public-domain program available called Flu-shot that's supposed to be able to locate a virus on your computer disks and eradicate it.

But just to throw a "bug" in the ointment, it's also been reported that earlier versions of the Flu-shot program have also been infected with a virus. While you're using Flu-shot to kill off one bug, you may actually be creating another.

Atari STs are not found only in homes; they are also being used professionally. Do the creators of ST viruses (or any computer virus, for that matter) really know what the outcome of their actions might be? Do they, for instance, want to be responsible for modifying a physician's data files? What may start off as an innocent practical joke could turn into a life-threatening situation. Anybody who thinks computer viruses are a wonderful new way to get a few "yucks" should carefully consider the potential consequences.

If you're one of those people who absolutely has to get attention by playing computerized practical jokes, then we ask you to go back to leaving obscene messages on bulletin-board systems. The rest of us can live with that.