Because of the increasing number of computer viruses, many of which have caused problems on campus, Temple Computer Services says it has strengthened its defense this semester.
The Melissa virus, one of most publicized, still exists in different strains, and this was the most recent problem on campus.
Melissa.gen.32 attacked several computers in the labs at Tuttleman, TUCC and Paley. Since the strain first attacked on April 7, the Computer Services Help Desk has received 38 calls from students about viruses on their computers or floppy disks, according to James Papacostas, assistant director of Academic Computer Services.
The virus prevented computers from starting up. Because of this, the computers had to be started using floppy disks, a much slower method. Computer Services had the computers started again in several minutes.
That recent Melissa strain did not strike campus labs until April 11. By the end of that week, McAfee, the virus detection system used in the labs, was updated and the problem halted, Papacostas said.
Another Melissa strain, Melissa.au@mm, never attacked campus labs but affected some administration users. This particular strain kept files from properly opening.
Pretty Park, a virus that changed a Windows operating system file and kept executable, or .exe, files from opening never struck campus labs.
Last semester the problem with viruses was worse, Papacostas said.
McAfee was updated just as regularly, but didn’t automatically scan on start up. Virus problems were worst at the end of the semester with students cramming the labs to write papers. The Help Desk received more calls about infected disks as well.
In spite of this “[Computer Services] kept on top of things pretty well. Rarely did we have computers down for a long time. We treated it like the labs were on fire,” said Gene Mayro, senior lab manager.
Mayro estimates that about 1,000 new viruses come out every week. Because of their abundance, McAfee has updates to its program every week. Temple receives them on Thursday and they are in the system by Friday.
McAfee currently scans for over 50,000 viruses.
A Mac virus detection program, Virex, is updated once a month, in part because of the lower number of viruses written for Macs.
According to ZDNet News, a virus is “a program spread by attaching themselves to other programs on a users computer — a program that has a virus attached to it is ‘infected.’ When the user later runs such an infected program, the virus can take control and damage a user’s computer.”
Viruses are usually spread on campus unknowingly by floppy disks. Most are through Microsoft Word, a result of the Visual Basic program being integrated with Word 97 for the purpose of creating macros. The problem still exists in Word 2000.
The virus attaches itself to the normal .doc file, the blank paper that appears on the screen when opening Word. This file is not scanned by virus detection programs when it is opened so it is then attached to papers many students write and save to their floppies.
When those disks are used in other computers and the infected files are opened, those computers become infected. All other users who save a Word document are then infected and pass it on as well.
Viruses are also spread through the Netscape browser’s Post Office Protocol (POP) mail server and Microsoft’s Outlook Express. This is how the original Melissa virus started. It worked by clogging e-mail servers when it opened up the address book and sent e-mails to those saved.
Some viruses are written to avoid the scan engine, or virus detection program, so they are not identified until a problem occurs on the computer. Scan engines must be updated along with virus definitions.
To successfully combat the virus problem on campus, Computer Services has set up several of the labs’ computers to run McAfee virus scan when the computer starts up. This slows down the start up, but cleans the computer for users on a regular basis.
Campus labs that perform virus checks at start up include Anderson Hall, Annenberg, Paley, Tuttleman and TUCC.
Throughout the day lab managers at each of the 20-plus labs on Main Campus and elsewhere randomly choose computers to run McAfee to search for viruses it can not clean.
Virus problems in computer labs are not isolated to just Temple. Other area colleges have their computers set to randomly perform virus scans throughout the night to keep problems from arising, but this requires leaving them on at all times.
The problems with Apple computers are fewer and many viruses that do infect Mac’s are because of Microsoft Word which is found on all campus computers. One reason is because unlike PCs, Macs scan a disk for viruses when it is first inserted into the computer. PCs don’t scan until an application is opened.
But having the computer automatically scan a disk when it is first inserted is hardly reliable. When this is done, the program quickly reads over the disk looking for anything suspicious. A manual scan of a disk is more thorough.
“Three out of five times McAfee didn’t detect a virus. Same for Norton,” Mayro said of automatic disk scans.
Manually scanning disks and restarting the computer every time it is used is one way to save files from being lost when a virus infects a computer from its previous use. It may take a couple of minutes extra time but it could be worth it in the end.
On the desktops of lab computers, there is an icon for the McAfee program to scan floppy disks. The program can also be found in the start menu under programs.
“Most of the viruses running loose are written simply to say ‘I did this’,” Mayro said.
Of the 50,000 or more out there, ones such as Pretty Park and Melissa are actually destructive. Many simply just pop up windows with a message and are more of an annoyance than a problem. An example is one that automatically turns up the volume on a computer and says, “Hey, I’m looking at porn over here!”
Mayro recommends that students have a virus detection program on their computers. For PCs there is McAfee and Norton Antivirus. For Macintosh systems, users can access Virex.