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February 27, 1996


So Who's Afraid of Good Times?

The Good Times virus is a hoax.

For more than a year, people have been sending alarms via E-mail that an insidious virus called Good Times is spreading over the Internet.

According to the warnings, anyone who opens an electronic mail message with the words "Good Times" in its subject line risks all sorts of horrors, from erasure of hard disk drives to exploding monitors. Some of the more creative warnings say the Federal Communications Commission has issued an advisory on this scourge. If true, this would constitute a novel sideline for the F.C.C.

The E-mail warnings about Good Times sound sufficiently dweeby to impress even experienced computer users. "If the program is not stopped, the computer's processor will be placed in an nth-complexity infinite binary loop which can severely damage the processor if left running too long," according to one warning I received last week. "Unfortunately, most novice computer users will not realize what is happening until it is far too late."

The warning itself is infinitely loopy. And for the nth time, the Good Times virus does not exist. It is a fraud, a cyburban legend, nothing more than an electronic chain letter.

"It's a lot easier to create a message panic than it is to create a good virus," said Jimmy Kuo, a senior virus researcher at the computer security firm McAfee & Associates.

Many computer security experts are reluctant to dismiss Good Times as strenuously as it deserves, fearing that such scorn will only rile someone into creating a real one.

Goodness knows, there are plenty of viruses around that are more worthy of concern. For example, the planet is inexorably spinning toward March 6, the one day each year when a virus called Michelangelo pops to life. It can cause damage, but almost any antivirus program will catch and kill it.

"Most people are running virus scanners on their computers, and the antivirus authors are doing good job," said Marvin J. Christensen, a computer security engineer at the Computer Incident Advisory Capability, the Department of Energy's computer response team. "To me, it would be stupid not to run a virus checker. There are too many ways to get viruses today."

Mr. Christensen pointed to new generations of viruses and so-called Trojan Horse programs that can travel on the Internet and other computer networks, in some cases attached to electronic mail or documents that are downloaded from the net. (A computer virus is a piece of code that replicates and spreads from machine to machine; a Trojan Horse is a program that purports to do one thing, but really does another.)

"What the jet was to the biological virus, the Internet is to the computer virus," Mr. Kuo said. "You don't have to go to Hong Kong to get the Hong Kong flu."

The new viruses and Trojans are not well understood and are difficult to defend against. Most anti-virus programs look for executable programs, but let electronic mail and other documents go unchallenged.

Does this mean that anyone who uses the Internet is in danger? Hardly. With the exception of a little item called the WinWord macro virus, which primarily affects users of Microsoft Word for Windows version 6.0 or higher, these new bad guys are rare. And for now, at least, they are merely annoying, not destructive.

But the experts are concerned, because each new technology that is intended to make the Internet easier to use also makes it easier for these viruses and Trojans to spread.

For example, the current trend is to embed mini-programs, called macros, or simple applications, called applets, in electronic documents, mail files or Web pages. An E-mail message to the boss might contain a snippet of a spreadsheet program that automatically opens when the message is read, or it might signal the user's own spreadsheet program to come alive.

Someday soon, Grandma might log on to the Knicks' Web site to pull down an applet that constantly updates the N.B.A. scores on her screen, perhaps with a little video clip of Patrick Ewing jamming it in Shaq's face. Surprise, Grandma!

"Just by opening a document, things are executed before the user has a chance to check them out" for nasty attachments, Mr. Christensen explained.

And then there is the dreaded Boza virus, which an alarmed reader informed me is "the first virus that directly infects the 32-bit protected memory Windows environment." In other words, it infects Windows 95 and Windows NT, which were designed to be impervious to traditional computer viruses.

Unlike Good Times, Boza exists, but out to be something of a dud. Just as regular computer programs can have bugs, so can viruses. Boza's bugs make it virtually impossible to spread from computer to computer, which is what computer viruses are all about.

It reminds me of the scare about polywater, a molecular mutant that scientists created in the laboratory years ago. If one drop of polywater escaped and made its way into a river, the story went, all the world's water would eventually turn into something like mucus. We managed to escape death by polywater, and we will probably survive Boza, too.

PERSONAL COMPUTING is published weekly, on Tuesdays. Click here for links to other columns in this series.

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