Paint It Scary : Businesses, Others Scramble to Thwart Michelangelo PC Virus


Thousands of companies and individuals who rely on personal computers are scrambling this week to eradicate one of the most widespread computer viruses ever, while software manufacturers and distributors are finding that demand for their anti-viral products is booming.

The Michelangelo virus, which by some estimates has infected about 5 million personalcomputers, is expected to activate Friday, the 517th anniversary of the Italian artist’s birth.

“We’re in exact parallel with the medical profession,” said John McAfee, chairman of the Computer Virus Industry Assn., an organization that advises computer users on how to combat viruses. “When people become concerned with biological viruses, doctors get more business; it’s the same for us.”


Michelangelo has alarmed virus experts with its rapid spread. The virus, which infects IBM and compatible PCs, was discovered in Northern Europe last year and was deciphered by a German virus expert.

It evaded quality control checks at more than 25 hardware and software makers, infiltrating their products.

Intel, an international manufacturer of computer components, is one of several companies to unwittingly distribute infected products. The Santa Clara-based company sent to distributors in North America and Europe 839 diskettes of its computer network software product, LANSpool 3.01, infected with the Michelangelo virus.

It has since taken major steps to minimize the impact by recalling the products and releasing a new, virus-tested LANSpool 3.02. It also notified customers and sent them free copies of antiviral software, and instituted an information hot line.

“The overall cost of doing all this is not insignificant, but not huge,” said Jim Flash, vice president of the PC enhancement division at Intel.

While eradicating the virus has become a major ordeal for some computer companies, many have found the experience to be educational. They’re learning that people need to practice safe computing.


“If people know how viruses are transmitted, that’s perhaps the best protection,” said Craig Conrad, director of marketing communications for Leading Edge Products Inc. An infestation of some of the firm’s new PCs last December helped raise awareness about the virus. “This has been an enlightening and educating experience for us on viruses.”

Some corporate computer users, including Intel and Leading Edge, sent memos to their staffs about the virus and have taken other precautions.

But some individual computer users are in a panic. And panic often brings on catastrophe.

Danie Watson, marketing director of Ontrack, knows. At her company, which produces antiviral software, she’s received tons of calls from desperate customers. One man who called in for virus information wanted to make sure his PC wasn’t infected, so he set the computer clock ahead to March 6. Sure enough, the memory on his hard disk drive was erased and replaced with jibberish.

“People aren’t thinking straight,” Watson said.

The virus is stoppable, however. Users can avoid Michelangelo’s effects by leaving PCs switched off Friday or by changing the machines’ time clocks to March 7. But even then it may still spread or attack next year. So an anti-virus program must be used to remove it completely.

The demand for these software programs has grown since computer viruses first appeared nine years ago. Since then the number of viruses has increased. It isnow growing at a rate of almost six a day, McAfee said.

Sales of antiviral software doubled in February for Parsons Technology Inc., a software wholesaler based in Iowa. The company has sold 50,000 diskettes the past two years--8,000 in the last month alone.

Industry insiders say the increased demand isn’t temporary. The business of viral detection and elimination will grow to become one of the most prominent segments of the software industry in the next five years, McAfee said.

“Into the foreseeable future somebody at some time may discover a hardware solution that will greatly diminish the need for antiviral software,” said Russ Allen, director of software acquisition at Parsons. “But until that happens, the number of viruses will increase and the demand for antiviral software will increase.”

A Brush With Disaster? A potentially disastrous virus dubbed Michelangelo is set to trigger millions of computer crashes on Friday. The virus, named for the Italian Renaissance painter and sculptor, lies dormant in an estimated 5 million IBM-compatible personal computers worldwide, and is poised to erase hard disks on Friday--the artist’s birthday. What the virus does * Triggered by date, in this case March 6, Michelangelo’s birthday * Erases hard disks; unlike previous viruses has potential to destroy significant amounts of data * Spread through contact with an infected floppy. The virus attaches itself to the part of the disk that is read when the computer is started, or “booted,” and is known as a “boot sector” virus. * Floppy disks are “carriers” of the virus to a hard disk. The floppies themselves are relatively unaffected, with some data files being moved or lost. * Left untreated, an infected disk can transmit the virus year after year. The damage goes undetected on the hard disk until the following March 6. Some steps to take now Back up all critical data onto floppies or tape drive. * Purchase or otherwise obtain an antiviral program. Some sources: Norton AntiVirus 2.0 ($99 from Symantec, 800-441-7234) Untouchable ($135 from Fifth Generation Systems 800-873-4384) Dr. Solomon’s Anti-Virus Tool Kit ($149.95 from Ontrack 800-752-1333. McAfee Associates (408-988-3832) publishes share-ware and commerical antiviral software. Modem users can download the share-ware version from CompuServe and many computer bulletin boards for no cost other than the connect time or phone charges. Users are expected to pay a registration fee to the company. If you can’t obtain antiviral software here are some other precautions to consider: * Turn off your computer till March 7. * Change the system clock using the DOS date command to March 7. These won’t eliminate the problem; they’ll only delay it till March 6, 1993. How to Avoid Viruses in the Future * Install a virus-prevention program that loads into computers and prevents infected floppy disks from spreading their viruses. * Don’t indiscriminately share diskettes, such as trading games and other software programs with friends, relatives and co-workers. * Don’t run programs of unknown origin. * Don’t run software sent to you unsolicited. How Virus Is Transmitted 1. An infected floppy disk is inserted in the drive when the computer is first turned on. 2. The virus is transferred to the hard disk. 3. All other floppy disks inserted into the drive are infected by virus. They in turn spread virus in the same manner.