Why should I care if my computer has a virus?
Dave Carlson - December 7, 1989
“OK, so a computer virus can sneak into my computer without my knowledge … so what?” Good question! With all of the media hype about computer viruses, it’s difficult to know if they pose a problem to YOUR computer system.
Somebody Else’s Problems
To get a feel for why you should be concerned about the computer virus threat, consider problems others have experienced:
- November 1987:
- A major university was infected by a virus program brought into the computer center on a single floppy disk. The virus destroyed most of the publicly accessible disks in just a few days.1
- December 1987:
- A world-wide mainframe network was almost shut down by an electronic mail “Christmas card.” Over 500,000 copies of the program appeared in two hours.2
- January 1988:
- A major university found a virus in their computer records system. The virus was designed to erase data the next Friday the 13th. Luckily, it was discovered (by accident) before it was triggered. If it had gone off, the virus may have destroyed years of research, financial information, and student files.3
- Summer 1988:
- The congressional House Information Services computers were invaded by a virus program. It cost about $100,000 in staff time and resources to clean the virus out of the system.4
- November 1988:
- A large computer network was invaded by a worm program. In less than two days, an estimated 6,200 computer systems were infected. Experts estimate that the cost of this incident was between $20,000,000 and $95,000,000 (for the system cleanup and testing).5
- March 1989:
An episode of Star Trek – The next Generation addressed the computer virus problem.
The Enterprise responded to a distress call from a ship investigating a strange planet near the neutral zone. During its investigation, the ship received some unusual transmissions from the planet. After the incident, the ship began experiencing severe system failures.
The Enterprise arrived just in time to download the ship’s log before it exploded. The Enterprise crew assumed the ship had fallen victim to a design flaw. The crew tried to determine what that flaw could have been.
Surprise! You guessed it. The Enterprise began experiencing similar computer system problems. The crew discovered that their computers had been infected by a virus. The virus had entered the Enterprise computers in the log downloaded from the doomed ship. The virus was replicating itself and taking over the ship’s computers.
Since there were more episodes to file, the crew discovered a cure for the virus. They shut down the computers, erased all memory, and restored the system from backups.6
- September 1989:
- A computer user complained that after about 30 minutes of computing, his computer screen would go blank and his system would lock up. His only fix was to reboot. After each reboot, the symptoms repeated themselves. Investigation revealed a virus program as the cause (harmless problem, but annoying).7
- October 1989:
- A small businessman’s computer was infected by a virus program. The virus erased all data from the hard disk in his computer. This was his only copy of client and accounts receivable records. He had no backups.8
Here are some nasty things computer viruses can do to your computer system:
- Reboot computer at random times. One type of virus reboots your computer at random or specified times. While it may not cause any real damage, an unexpected reboot would be extremely annoying in the middle of an important project.
- Change setup information. If you have an AT-class computer (80286 processor), your computer’s setup information is stored in your Complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor (CMOS). The CMOS stores information about how much memory the computer has; what kind of drives are installed; system time and date; and other things the computer needs to know to configure itself. If a virus program changes that information, the computer will not work properly. You will have to run your setup routine to allow the computer to function again.
- Embarrass you. Some viruses have been known to put dirty words or undesirable pictures on your screen at random intervals. You may find it difficult to explain to your boss why you were looking at that inappropriate picture on the company computer during business hours.
- Steal computer memory. An “insufficient memory” message always is a bother. Some virus programs don’t do any real damage—they just fill up available memory, so none of your programs will load. If your computer doesn’t have enough memory available to run your programs, it is no better than an expensive boat anchor.
WOW! What now?
- Erase files. “File not found? WHAT?! I know that program is on this disk.” The program may have been there yesterday, but it’s not there now. If you don’t have a backup, your data may be gone forever!9
- Reformat disks. A virus program may reformat a floppy or hard disk. The format command destroys data on the disk. It may be very difficult to recover the data. If you don’t have a backup, your data may be gone forever!
- Alter data files. What impact would it have on your records if a virus program moved the decimal point for every second number one place to the left in your spreadsheet files? What impact would it have on your records if a virus program changed every customer account number in your database files? What impact would it have if a virus program removed the letter “e” from every twelfth word in your word processing files? Got the picture? If you don’t have a backup, your data may be gone forever!
- Change a disk File Allocation Table (FAT) or Directory. If disk directory data is changed, your computer will not be able to find files on the disk. The data still will be on the disk, but you will not be able to retrieve it without specialized software tools. If you don’t have a backup, your data may be gone forever!
- “Crunch” your hard drive. One very sophisticated virus program directs the disk controller to move the hard drive head to track -1 (That’s one less track than your disk has). The results are disastrous—the read head will move past track 0 and “crunch” into the disk spindle (Not a pleasant thought, is it?). Many disk controllers and drives have been designed to prevent this from happening, but it has happened. Could it happen to you? If you don’t have a backup, your data may be gone forever!
- Cost you real money. If you give someone a floppy disk containing a virus program (unknown to you), and the virus infects their hard drive, can you be held liable for their damage? Someday, “I didn’t know” may not stand up in court. Why take a chance? Do something about it now. Make sure your system is clean. If THEY don’t have a backup, THEIR data may be gone forever!
“Just as the first airline hijacking forever changed how we view airline travel, computer viruses are forcing a permanent change in how we view data processing.”10 As you have read, the computer virus threat is real. Fortunately, computer viruses have not reached “epidemic proportions,” as some media hype would have you believe.
The virus threat is real, but not an insurmountable problem. A rational, common-sense approach to the problem should give you adequate protection. The odds are in your favor. It’s very unlikely your computer will be attacked by a virus, so don’t panic. But, it’s still best to be prepared for the unexpected. Remember, if you don’t have a backup, your data may be gone forever!
1 Angel Rivera, et. al., A Manager’s Guide to Computer Viruses: Symptoms & Safeguards (Northborough, MA: Computer Security Institute, 1989), 4.
2 Rivera, 3.
4 Brown Sharp II, “Computer Viruse Invade a Low-Immunity Congress,” Government Computer News, 4 September 1989, 11.
5 Rivera, 3.
6 NOTE: Even though this was not a real problem, it illustrates a concern about viruses. It also demonstrates a good reason for having functional backups.
7 Note posted by “Mike” on The Battle Zone BBS, Waukesha, WI, (414) 521-2194.
8 Various TV news reports carried this story after the 1989 Friday the 13th virus scare (October 13, 1989).
9 NOTE: Good programs exist to recover deleted files and fix problems caused by viruses (e.g., Norton Utilities and PC Tools). However, some viruses may also wipe over the data area, making it impossible to recover without thousands of dollars’ worth of fancy electronic gadgetry.
10 Martin King and Bill Buer, “Viruses and Related Mechanisms in MVS,” Security and Audit News, Fall 1988, 14.