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Michelangelo virus not major disaster

By JOE FASBINDER United Press International

Feared around the world, the deadline for the eruption of the long- awaited Michelangelo virus passed without becoming the data-destroying disaster many had predicted.

'I'm hearing that the big companies have had a fair amount of success in mitigating damage,' said Winn Schwartau, executive director of the Nasvhille, Tenn.-based International Partnership Against Computer Terrorism. 'It's not nearly the disaster it could have been.'

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State Department official reported Friday that the virus had struck IBM-compatible computers at three U.S. missions: Toronto, Canada, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and La Paz, Bolivia. The problem was fixed before any damage could be done. The State Department's computers in Washington were not affected by the virus.

In Illinois, the state's fiscal crisis had at least one positive effect on Michelango Friday -- it may have prevented the rogue computer virus from erasing driver's license records.

Secretary of State George Ryan said officials in his office found and destroyed traces of the virus that managed to invade the state's vehicle records database. But budget problems limited the amount of new software the state had been able to buy last year, so Ryan says there wasn't much opportunity for new software to infect the system widely.

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New York state authorities reported at least three machines infected with the Michelangelo virus, but all were caught before they could go off.

'The virus isn't nearly the problem that the media circus around it has turned out to be,' said Schwartau. 'The virus-busters are running around solving this thing and making a fortune in the process.'

He noted that much of the advance notice about the impending detonation of the Michelangelo virus came from software companies which publish anti-virus software, leading to a run on sales in some areas, notably Southern California.

Egghead Software said Wednesday that sales of anti-virus software were running 3,000 percent ahead of last week.

Estimates of the number of infected computers ranged from a few hundred thousand to more than 5 million worldwide.

John McAfee, president of McAfee Associates, a virus consulting firm in Santa Clara, Calif., said the Michelangelo Virus was first discovered in the Netherlands in February 1991 and since has spread far and wide.

Reports out of South Africa Friday said as many as 1,000 computers suffered damage because of the virus. 'If there are 1,000, that's not bad,' said Schwartau.

The virus caused damage in at least eight computers in Japan in the early hours of March 6, and China's Ministry of Public Security said it had found 'fewer than 10' infections during a survey of computer centers nationwide.

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In Poland, considered a haven for computer software pirates, computer owners lined up at software stores to buy anti-virus software Thursday. There were no immediate reports of virus-linked damage there.

The virus struck at least 10 computer networks in Paraguay and two systems in Argentina, but most South American computer users took steps to keep Michelangelo from wiping out information stores.

In the United States, the virus attacked Thursday -- a day early -- at more than 12 companies. MaAfee said the internal clocks of the companies' computers had been set a day early. He declined to name the companies involved.

NASA had 200 infected computers, Schwartau said, and the destructive virus had also been found in computers installed in Senate offices. Both infections were discovered early enough to allow the hard disks affected to be disinfected.

The Michelangelo virus is actually the most recent and most highly publicized in a series of small, hard-to-detect computer programs designed to get into IBM-compatible computers through computer bulletin boards and infected diskettes.

Michelangelo, unlike some viruses, has to be passed on physically, on a diskette, to infect a computer's hard disk. Even seemingly blank diskettes can carry the virus.

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The virus is unique, Schwartau said, because it has been distributed so widely on commercially available software -- long considered the one place safe from computer viruses.

'I have a list of 11 or 12 commercial companies which have been distributing Michelangelo accidentally on legitimate, shrinkwrapped software,' said Schwartau. He declined to name the companies involved, citing 'professional reasons.'

The Michelangelo virus infected as many as 500 new computers shipped in December by Leading Edge Products in Massachusetts. InfoWorld, the computer newspaper, also said Chips & Technologies Corp. also inadvertently distributed the virus on free disks handed out at the Comdex computer show in Las Vegas. The same virus infected eMAIL 2.0 demonstration disks shipped out by Da Vinci Corp.

It has also been found in 2,400 of the 3,000 PCs at the New Jersey Institute of Technology campus in Newark and the computers of at least one state agency. Three out of four computers at the New Jersey Commission to Study Sex Discrimination were found to be infected.

Once a PC's hard disk is infected with the Michelangelo virus, it will infect every floppy disk placed in the computer.

Viruses are usually designed to be invisible to casual computer users, and lurk in hard disks until the internal clock in the computer turns to a certain date -- in this case, March 6, the 517th anniversary of the birth of the Italian Renaissance painter and sculptor. Then, it goes off, erasing every other sector of the hard disk and replacing the data on the erased sector with randomly generated characters.

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