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The Bad Side of Bug Spray

The most prolific family of biological viruses--the one that causes the common cold--evolved over millions of years by way of gradual DNA mutations. By contrast, Melissa, which since last Friday has become the most prolific computer virus ever, appears to have been written hastily by a young computer hacker.

And yet, despite its humble origin and primitive design, Melissa’s crashing of corporate Microsoft-based e-mail systems has undermined worker productivity as handily as any winter bug--though it fortunately was designed more to bother than to kill. Corporate information system managers say they have now cleaned up most of Melissa’s damage, but the virus has raised anew some tough questions. That’s because the same systems that could battle future viruses could also threaten two of the Web’s cherished principles:

* Open exchange of ideas. Melissa’s main victims have been those companies that stayed truest to the Internet’s original spirit by creating unencumbered networks in which e-mails travel freely and speedily without filters or “firewalls.”

* Personal privacy. Law enforcement officials, along with many information system managers, have long asked computer manufacturers to embed “unique identifiers” in computer chips so that e-mails and other transmissions would carry an electronic signature. Computer hackers and other cyber-criminals could be easily tracked down.

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Earlier this year, public protest forced the chip maker Intel to back away from such a plan. However, unique identifiers are already embedded in documents created with the Microsoft Office programs. In recent days, amateur cyber-sleuths, aided by identifiers, might have traced Melissa to a known virus writer using the moniker VicodinES (a prescription painkiller). The FBI is now involved.

It’s obvious there’s no perfect cure for virus problems. But this latest attack is a useful reminder that we need to find some imperfect, interim answers soon.


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