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Archive for Monday, February 24, 1992

MICHELANGELO NEARS

February 24, 1992

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Renowned sculptor and painter Michelangelo was born March 6, 1475, and went on to create Renaissance masterpieces that have survived for centuries.

In less than two weeks, on the 517th anniversary of his birth, a new Michelangelo is expected to come to life in the form of a computer virus.

The virus won't be measured in artistic terms. Its legacy will be viewed in terms of destructive force.

"We've started notifying users of things they might do to protect their system," said Jerry Niebaum, director of academic computing services at Kansas University.

Mickey Waxman, a "virus watcher" with academic computing, said the Michelangelo virus has infected at least two personal computers at KU.

"I found one copy several months ago and another was reported to me in the last three weeks on campus," he said. "We cannot evaluate just how big a threat it is, just how many machines it may be sitting on on campus."

THE VIRUS hasn't caused any damage yet, but it could destroy information on the floppy disk or hard disk of a computer after March 6 the date Michelangelo is scheduled to "deliver its payload," Waxman said.

Experts predict the virus could affect as many as 5 million computers worldwide, including 500,000 in the United States.

Niebaum said the bug can't invade KU's main frame computer. It could work its way into IBM personal computers or IBM clones on an infected disk, he said.

Michelangelo would be delivered on a floppy disk inserted in a computer, Waxman said. It would then hide in a computer's memory, infecting every disk the machine uses. It's poised to overwrite stored information with random characters.

The virus surfaced about a year ago in Europe, though its exact origin and the motive for the Michelangelo connection are unknown.

"THE REASON for all the big excitement about the Michelangelo virus is that it moved around the world very fast and it does some damage," Waxman said.

He said most personal computer viruses don't cause damage and don't spread rapidly.

"There are other viruses that have completely infested our (KU) computers," Waxman said, "but they are mostly harmless."

The best way of sidestepping the virus is to obtain protective software, Neibaum said.

"We have virus protection software (at KU)," he said. "It checks the floppy disk prior to using it so folks can know if the disk is infected."

WAXMAN is working to notify as many people as possible about the potential threat of Michelangelo.

"I'd hate to think of somebody losing a dissertation or something. Not very many people are real diligent about keeping duplicates," Waxman said.

There are more than 1,100 variants of known computer viruses, including ones named Crackerjack, Red October and Armageddon.

Generally, a computer hacker puts the virus on a software program. The virus is unleashed when the program is transferred to a computer, either via a disk or a connection with another computer.

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