Global computer virus highlights the annoying side of Internet Age

'I Love You' bug disrupts e-mail from Beijing to Washington.

In today's tech-heavy world, everybody's heard of computer viruses. But phone viruses? Refrigerator viruses?

Get ready for the annoying side of the Internet Age. As Web connectivity is built into more and more devices - even food-ordering fridges - more aspects of our lives will be vulnerable to destructive computer hackers, say experts.

Yesterday's explosive spread of the so-called "I Love You" virus shows how damaging Internet-delivered corrupt code can be. Though the "Love" incident hit only personal computers, mobile phones and hand-held computing devices will likely be the next targets of such attacks, according to software security executives.

In the post-PC age, eternal vigilance will be the price of data liberty.

"The moral of the story is that there's always someone who wants to spoil the fun for the rest of us," says Mikko Hypponen, manager of anti-virus research at F-Secure Corp. in Finland. "There's always someone who wants to do stupid things like this."

In the old days of hacker attacks, viruses were spread by the passing of diskettes carrying infected programs, or by the unknowing downloading of software that contained corrupt code.

Viruses thus traveled relatively slowly. Few computer users loaded new software on their machines every day.

But the Internet - and especially its use for e-mail - has in recent years given hackers a much more efficient threat-delivery device. The wake-up call was Melissa, a worm of a program that traveled quickly around the globe last year.

Named for a Florida exotic dancer, Melissa changed the rules of computer-security engagement. It entered into computers as an e-mail. If a user opened a document attached to the e-mail, Melissa secretly wormed its way into e-mail program software, and automatically sent itself to the first 50 people listed in the user's personal e-mail address book.

The sheer number of automatically-generated messages zipping back-and-forth caused many businesses e-mail systems to crash.

Yet yesterday's "I Love You" attack was an order of magnitude worse.

The virus first surfaced in Asia. By afternoon, local time, it had spread to 20 countries in Europe. It then spread far and wide in the US.

Security experts said it would likely go down as the fastest-spreading virus in the history of computers, to date.

In Britain, three businesses in 10 were affected in a few hours. The House of Commons had to shut down its computer network to prevent the spread of the bug. In Germany, as many as 90 percent of the businesses were hit.

"Business computer users have been ringing up in their hundreds, asking what to do," says Jack Clark of Network Associates, a UK anti-virus software firm.

In the US, the bug affected computers at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill, the Florida state lottery, and campaign headquarters - including Hillary Rodham Clinton's.

The Love bug resembled Melissa in form, but causes infected computers to forward messages to everyone listed in e-mail address books, not just the first 50. Worse, it also commandeered company global address books, which can contain thousands of addresses.

Those attacked had the weird sensation of seeing a string of messages all headlined "ILOVEYOU" and then receiving no more e-mail. Opening an attachment on the e-mail infected victims' computers.

The manner of attack was insidious, because the e-mails appeared to be coming from addresses known to the user. "We all got messages saying 'I love you' from our H.R. [human resources] department," says Mort Hoffman, senior security architect for Baltimore Technologies America, a US Internet security firm.

Mobile phones could theoretically be vulnerable to a similar attack once they are able to receive more graphical information - a threshold that could be reached this year security researchers are increasingly focusing on the new world of ubiquitous computing as their frontier - smart homes with appliances such as Internet fridges and the like.

Soon there will just be more niches where things can spread faster, they say.

*Tom Regan, James Norton, and Laurent Belsie contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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