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Thursday, 4 May, 2000, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
Q&A: The Love Bug
Srivats Sampath and Eddy Hsia of anti-virus software maker McAfee answer questions about the ILOVEYOU virus.

How does this compare to other viruses?

"To put this in the context of the Melissa virus, this is Super Melissa," said Mr Sampath, the president and CEO of

"Melissa e-mailed itself to the first 50 names in your address book. This e-mails to everyone in your address book, and steals your IRC and Outlook passwords and mails them to the Philippines," he said.

The virus overwrote a number of file types including the JPEG image files and MP3 audio files. "What it would do is if you had a file named mymusic.mp3, it would delete that file and add a file called mymusic.vbs," said Mr Hsia, the director of utilities development with the company.

Users might think it was still their audio file, when in fact, the virus had replaced it with its own code.

How did this spread so quickly?

"The reason the virus is spreading so quickly is because when you click on it and open up the attachment, it opens up your address book and mails everyone in address book. If you have a thousand people who have on average 50 people in their address book, it gets sent on to 50,000 people," Mr Sampath said.

"If those people have on average 10 people in their address book, it gets sent to 500,000 people. That is what causes it to propagate that fast," Mr Sampath said.

Corporations also had less time to react to the virus, Mr Hsia said.

Melissa was released on a Friday. Corporations had a weekend to clean up and shut down servers. This hit midweek, and fewer people were aware of the virus at first. "And people are the factor that opens up attachments", he added.

Why was this not prevented?

"The anti-virus industry is a more reactive thing," Mr Hsia.

Some anti-virus software uses heuristic analysis to detect viruses, meaning that the code does not have to be a known virus, it simply has to have code similar to known viruses to trigger the software.

However, most anti-virus software uses known definitions to protect computers.

Once a virus is found, virus fighters write filters to detect them and protect against them, Mr Hsia said.

How did it got through computer security systems?

The virus was attached to e-mail, which would not trigger security systems.

Users can set up the Microsoft Outlook e-mail programme to filter, but by default, it does not filter messages by file type, Mr Hsia said.

The hacker simply took advantage that Outlook would not by default flag e-mail with Visual Basic Script attachments.

The virus used Microsoft's Visual Basic Script to access the Microsoft Outlook address book and send the messages, Mr Sampath said.

How do users protect themselves?

"Our suggestion is to always view e-mail with caution," Mr Hsia said, adding, "there are a lot of things out there, and you don't know where it comes from."

Mr Hsia does not typically open e-mails from people he does not know, and when he receives attached files, even from people he does know, he usually saves the file to his disk and scans it with an anti-virus programme first before opening the file.

He also suggests that users upgrade their software on a regular basis. This will ensure that the software has all of the latest patches and security updates.

Mr Sampath said: "We need to protect and manage our digital assets."

"As we live more in a cyber economy with a cyber lifestyle, our handheld computers, our documents and our identity increasingly become digital assets," he said.

"With the Internet, unless you're protected, it's very scary out there," he added.

He has come up with a corollary to Metcalfe's law.

The law was coined by Robert Metcalfe. He the inventor of the Ethernet networking technology and the founder of the pioneering networking company 3Com.

He said that the value of a network increases exponentially as more people use it.

Mr Sampath's corollary is more is more ominous. One's vulnerability increases as more people use the network, meaning that as more people use the Internet, people will have to be more concerned with security.

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See also:

04 May 00 | Sci/Tech
The spread menace
30 Mar 99 | Sci/Tech
Melissa virus goes global
26 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
Old computer viruses still bite
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