Viruses: the next generation

Within an hour of its release, workers in London wake to an expression of affection - and before long, e-mail is brought to a screeching halt in the House of Commons, followed by the Pentagon, Ford Motor Company, and a number of dot-com start-ups in San Francisco.

The Love Bug has arrived, and everyone's got it.

The Love Bug, also known as LoveLetter, spread more rapidly and widely than any electronic virus before it, striking 55 million computers (infecting 2.5 to 3 million of those) and causing $US8.7 billion in damage, according to research firm Computer Economics. By contrast, Melissa - the fastest-moving virus before LoveLetter - reached about 250,000 computers in March 1999.

In 1993, there were 3200 known viruses in the world. Today, there are more than 40,000 - though only 200 to 300 of them are actively spreading, or "in the wild". Some six to 12 new viruses appear each day, and each generation gets sneakier than the last.

Viruses used to take months or years to spread, but current strains circle the globe in minutes via e-mail. What's more, the homogeneity of the computing world (with Microsoft's Windows, Word, and Outlook everywhere) makes it easy for viruses to infect millions of machines.

According to experts, future viruses won't need you to open an attachment or e-mail to begin inflicting harm; they'll simply activate when you check your e-mail program for new cor-respondence. We may also see cluster viruses that spawn miniviruses inside your system to attack various sectors and thwart scanning software. There are already cases of rogue Web sites that steal files or passwords from computers, as well as the first viruses for Palm PDAs. And viruses targeting mobile phones and Linux systems aren't far away. Eventually, viruses may be used as agents of cyberterrorism to attack government defence systems, steal data, and disable communications.

Educating yourself and securing your computer with the right tools can help you avoid trouble. The experts advise: disable macros in your applications; download patches for software holes; install a good virus scanner; and get weekly updates to the scanner to catch the latest culprits (for more virus prevention tips, see "Kill viruses before they infect your system").

  • The digital common cold

  • The origin of virus species

  • Melissa's contribution

  • The next generation

  • Beware of geeks bearing gifts

  • Future deterrence

  • Legal remedies

  • Kill viruses before they infect your system

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