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The End of Unprotected Interfacing

GRUN-BLINGS

By Michael R. Grunwald

"In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo..."--T.S. Eliot

NOT JUST WOMEN, T.S. Men are talking about Michelangelo, too.

Actually, "talking" doesn't really describe what they're doing. "Screeching" is a big more like it.

"People are flipping out," said William J. Ouchark. "Everyone's scared of Michelangelo."

MOST OF YOU Know what Ouchark was talking about. A few of you are probably confused.

"Michelangelo is dead/a gut/a cartoon character," you are saying. "I'm not scared of him/it/that stupid-looking fictional turtle. I'm going back to my thesis."

Go right ahead. If you're writing with a Macintosh/typewriter/quill pen, you're probably safe. If you're working on a PC, don't say you weren't warned.

Michelangelo strikes today. Not Michelangelo the artist, or Michelangelo the Core class, or Michelangelo the hero in a half-shell. Michelangelo the computer virus. If your PC is infected, and you boot up today, Michelangelo will turn your hard drive to spaghetti.

"There is a potential for a virus like Michelangelo to be a very big deal indeed," said Thomas E. Cheatham, a Gordon McKay professor of computer science. (Irrelevant fact: I say "a" Gordon McKay professor and not "the" Gordon McKay professor because 12 of Harvard's 18 computer science professors are Gordon McKay professors. Gordon McKay must have been loaded.)

"I don't want to add to the hysteria, but this thing is vicious," added Ouchark, who manages Harvard's PC network in the Science Center. "Once it nails you, there's nothing you can do about it."

YSTERIA? Damn straight. Infinitesimal pieces of "malicious code" are lurking within our computers, waiting to explode. We can't see them. We don't understand them. But they can make our lives hell. According to The Boston Globe's reassuring article on viruses Wednesday (soothingly titled "COMPUTER KILLERS"), Michelangelo will do to a hard drive what a high-speed frontal collision will do to a car. No wonder people were wigging out yesterday:

In the PC center in the Science Center basement--undoubtedly "the room" Eliot had in mind--"user assistants" were patiently dealing with Michelangelophobia. "People know something really heavy and bad is coming," said Peter J. Bohlin, a Northeastern senior. "They just don't know how to deal with it. One woman came in totally hysterical. She was convinced that all her disks were infected with Michelangelo." Dozens of frantic PC owners have come into have their disks checked for the virus.

Next door, Michelangelo was the topic of the day among the e-mail crowd. "I'm worried about this Michelangelo virus going around," Rebecca L. Dubowy wrote to a friend at Carnegie Mellon. (Okay, so I peeked.) Dubowy told me she has received similar messages from friends at MIT, Penn and Berkeley.

At University Hall, Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III announced that he had worried about Michelangelo while lying in bed the night before. A special antivirus package was promptly purchased to protect the University Hall network. Total cost: $2000.

At Holyoke Center--which tested negative for Michelangelo--Registrar Georgene Herschbach was eager to share her insights on the virus with The Crimson's readership: "You want me to say that I was freaked out for a while. You're trying to make a story out of this. Viruses are out there in increasing numbers, and they require effective virus management. Hard drive management. But I don't want to be quoted on this subject. I have nothing to say about this. You're just trying to make a story out of what I'm saying. I would prefer that you don't use any of this, all right?"

All right.

At the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney sounded a bit frazzled. "I don't think that our computers have been infected with Michelangelo. And even if they have, I think we'll be able to fix them. And even if we can't, I don't think this particular virus would be able to trigger a nuclear holocaust."

OK, SO I MADE up that the last one. But Michelangelo did show up at the State Department--no lie. It's also been detected in Australia, in Europe, in the New York statehouse, in Leverett House, in Mather House, in Quincy House...Michelangelo is extremely contagious. Millions of computers are at risk of infection.

"I hope people have been taking adequate precautions," Ouchark said. "We've known it's coming for a while. People had plenty of time to protect themselves."

Contagious. At risk. Infections. Precautions. Protection. The AIDS analogy is somewhat irresistible: Before you put your disk in someone's drive, you need to know who else has put their disk in that person's drive. And where else their disk in that person's drive. And where else their disks have been. If that's too difficult, you can always get tested before you interface.

Unlike HIV, Michelangelo can be cured. As long as you don't boot up today, you can still avert disaster with a quick trip to the Science Center basement or OIT. They'll tell you what to do. It has something to do with scanners and disinfectants and "ex. A:/pkunzip scanv86b.zip." "Apparently, it shouldn't cost you any money this time.

BUT THERE'S ALWAYS next time.

Michelangelo is just one of 3000 viruses sniffed out by American hackers since 1982. (Didn't a certain medical epidemic start around that time?) Some of them--like the Kennedy virus, which leaves innocent messages on the screens of infected users on every anniversary of the deaths of JFK, RFK and Joseph Kennedy--are harmless. Others--like "Joshi", "which wreaked havoc upon Harvard's Office of Physical Resources--have serious attitude problems. Other viruses--Yankee Doodle, Blackjack, Dukakis, to name a few--have yet to reveal their destructive power. (For my money, Dukakis won't do anything.)

As some of us have learned from that other epidemic, education and early detection are the keys to limiting a virus's spread. This time, everything worked great. Somehow, the computer community found out that Michelangelo was going to blow on March 6. Somehow, the media decided that this impending explosion was an interesting story.

"I don't know why this particular virus got so much hype," Ouchark said. "There are plenty of destructive viruses out there."

You can pour your money into software that can wipe out existing viruses. And these programs are updated as new viruses rear their ugly heads. (Probable creator of Michelangelo: McAfee Associates, the first software company to create and anti-Michelangelo program. Probable evil genius behind McAfee Associates: Gordon McKay?)

But the virus-makers will always stay one step ahead of the virus-curers. They'll wipe out library records, hospital records, bank records, police records, government records, That's scary.

This is scarier: viruses have a nasty habit of getting out of control of the virus-makers. Three years ago, a Cornell hacker futzing around with his PC accidentally unleashed the Internet Worm, a pseudo-virus that stunned its creator by running roughshod across the country.

I may not know the first thing about computers, but I saw The Terminator. Machines should not have minds of their own.

MICHELANGELO is so scary precisely because most of us understand it so poorly. I mean, how does "code" spread? And if this "code" is so "malicious," why did it wait until Michelangelo's birthday to annihilate your "thesis"? How did anyone find out about Michelangelo? Will Donatello obliterate our files next month?

Beats me. All I know is this: I have journeyed to the basement of the Science Center for the first time since I took the QRR in September 1988. I have seen the Michelangelo hysteria.

"And, in short, I was afraid."--T.S. Eliot.

In the PC center in the Science Center basement--undoubtedly "the room" Eliot had in mind--"user assistants" were patiently dealing with Michelangelophobia. "People know something really heavy and bad is coming," said Peter J. Bohlin, a Northeastern senior. "They just don't know how to deal with it. One woman came in totally hysterical. She was convinced that all her disks were infected with Michelangelo." Dozens of frantic PC owners have come into have their disks checked for the virus.

Next door, Michelangelo was the topic of the day among the e-mail crowd. "I'm worried about this Michelangelo virus going around," Rebecca L. Dubowy wrote to a friend at Carnegie Mellon. (Okay, so I peeked.) Dubowy told me she has received similar messages from friends at MIT, Penn and Berkeley.

At University Hall, Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III announced that he had worried about Michelangelo while lying in bed the night before. A special antivirus package was promptly purchased to protect the University Hall network. Total cost: $2000.

At Holyoke Center--which tested negative for Michelangelo--Registrar Georgene Herschbach was eager to share her insights on the virus with The Crimson's readership: "You want me to say that I was freaked out for a while. You're trying to make a story out of this. Viruses are out there in increasing numbers, and they require effective virus management. Hard drive management. But I don't want to be quoted on this subject. I have nothing to say about this. You're just trying to make a story out of what I'm saying. I would prefer that you don't use any of this, all right?"

All right.

At the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney sounded a bit frazzled. "I don't think that our computers have been infected with Michelangelo. And even if they have, I think we'll be able to fix them. And even if we can't, I don't think this particular virus would be able to trigger a nuclear holocaust."

OK, SO I MADE up that the last one. But Michelangelo did show up at the State Department--no lie. It's also been detected in Australia, in Europe, in the New York statehouse, in Leverett House, in Mather House, in Quincy House...Michelangelo is extremely contagious. Millions of computers are at risk of infection.

"I hope people have been taking adequate precautions," Ouchark said. "We've known it's coming for a while. People had plenty of time to protect themselves."

Contagious. At risk. Infections. Precautions. Protection. The AIDS analogy is somewhat irresistible: Before you put your disk in someone's drive, you need to know who else has put their disk in that person's drive. And where else their disk in that person's drive. And where else their disks have been. If that's too difficult, you can always get tested before you interface.

Unlike HIV, Michelangelo can be cured. As long as you don't boot up today, you can still avert disaster with a quick trip to the Science Center basement or OIT. They'll tell you what to do. It has something to do with scanners and disinfectants and "ex. A:/pkunzip scanv86b.zip." "Apparently, it shouldn't cost you any money this time.

BUT THERE'S ALWAYS next time.

Michelangelo is just one of 3000 viruses sniffed out by American hackers since 1982. (Didn't a certain medical epidemic start around that time?) Some of them--like the Kennedy virus, which leaves innocent messages on the screens of infected users on every anniversary of the deaths of JFK, RFK and Joseph Kennedy--are harmless. Others--like "Joshi", "which wreaked havoc upon Harvard's Office of Physical Resources--have serious attitude problems. Other viruses--Yankee Doodle, Blackjack, Dukakis, to name a few--have yet to reveal their destructive power. (For my money, Dukakis won't do anything.)

As some of us have learned from that other epidemic, education and early detection are the keys to limiting a virus's spread. This time, everything worked great. Somehow, the computer community found out that Michelangelo was going to blow on March 6. Somehow, the media decided that this impending explosion was an interesting story.

"I don't know why this particular virus got so much hype," Ouchark said. "There are plenty of destructive viruses out there."

You can pour your money into software that can wipe out existing viruses. And these programs are updated as new viruses rear their ugly heads. (Probable creator of Michelangelo: McAfee Associates, the first software company to create and anti-Michelangelo program. Probable evil genius behind McAfee Associates: Gordon McKay?)

But the virus-makers will always stay one step ahead of the virus-curers. They'll wipe out library records, hospital records, bank records, police records, government records, That's scary.

This is scarier: viruses have a nasty habit of getting out of control of the virus-makers. Three years ago, a Cornell hacker futzing around with his PC accidentally unleashed the Internet Worm, a pseudo-virus that stunned its creator by running roughshod across the country.

I may not know the first thing about computers, but I saw The Terminator. Machines should not have minds of their own.

MICHELANGELO is so scary precisely because most of us understand it so poorly. I mean, how does "code" spread? And if this "code" is so "malicious," why did it wait until Michelangelo's birthday to annihilate your "thesis"? How did anyone find out about Michelangelo? Will Donatello obliterate our files next month?

Beats me. All I know is this: I have journeyed to the basement of the Science Center for the first time since I took the QRR in September 1988. I have seen the Michelangelo hysteria.

"And, in short, I was afraid."--T.S. Eliot.

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