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Monday, 4 September, 2000, 16:38 GMT 17:38 UK
Satellites help companies stay safe and secure
satellite dish
Anti-virus protection is starting to arrive through the air
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

As more and more computer viruses circulate, businesses are continuing to look for new ways to defeat the pernicious programs.

Now some companies are starting to protect themselves with a satellite network that distributes virus cures quickly.

Others are turning to smart software that can spot novel viruses before they do damage.

But companies and consumers will have to continue to be watchful as the writers of the malicious programs target new groups of users and devices.

The number of computer viruses circulating around the world has been steadily increasing for the last couple of years but has taken a leap upwards this year thanks to the ILOVEYOU virus.

Worms are returning

Typically computer viruses have relied on human fallibility to travel and have hitched a ride on documents or programs sent around companies or across the internet.

But the newer breed, such as the ILOVEYOU virus, need little help to travel because they can plunder e-mail address books and try to send themselves to all the names they find.

Figures collated by MessageLabs, which monitors and filters e-mail for companies, shows that the numbers of viruses being caught is on the rise.

In October last year, MessageLabs was stopping about 2,000 viruses per month but since May this year, when the ILOVEYOU virus struck, it has regularly been catching about eight times as many. The average from May to August was more than 16,000.

These viruses are more accurately called "worms" because they act by themselves.

The first virus to hit the internet, in 1988, was a "worm" and it was unleashed by computer science student Robert Morris - the son of the former chief scientist of the National Security Agency, America's encryption and spying organisation.

The tricks used by the ILOVEYOU virus to travel are being co-opted by other virus writers and there are believed to be at least 29 variants of it.

Only this week, a new variant of the ILOVEYOU virus, named after Disney character Donald Duck, was found in the wild.

Send by satellite

Now a South African company is trying to help companies keep up with the variants and new viruses by automatically distributing updates and fixes via a network of satellites.

Ian Melamed, chief technology officer of Satellite Safe, said companies had to move ever faster to keep up with the numbers of viruses in circulation.

The first copies of the ILOVEYOU virus were found eight hours before it did any damage, but cures were not available until almost two hours after it hit.

"The issue is one of speed and how you distribute a piece of information to millions of people around the world simultaneously," said Mr Melamed. "It is all about getting the filtering to start yesterday."

Satellite Safe monitors 117 sources of information on anti-viruses to keep up with the latest information. Once a novel virus has been identified, an alert is sent out via satellite to subscribers, reaching everyone within two minutes.

Latest information

"All these viruses have an ID to them," he said. "We broadcast that to an e-mail filtering program which detects, blocks and gets rid of them."

Mr Melamed said the updates were automatically installed and did not require anyone to visit a website and download the latest information.

But other companies are taking a different approach to virus protection by trying to spot malicious programs even before they do damage.

Last month, Finjan software released a free software utility called SurfinGuard which watches what any program on your computer is doing.

The utility warns users about any suspicious or malicious activity and asks if they want to let the program continue what it is doing.

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See also:

31 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Beating big bad bugs
25 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
Pokemon virus contained
25 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
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Interpol patrols the web
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