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May 18, 2000

Love Bug's bite here only a nibble for most

The Love Bug virus that infected millions of computers worldwide apparently didn't do much damage at Pitt.

The virus did force the University to temporarily shut down some of its e-mail network servers in order to disinfect them as well as users' computers.

An unknown number of units here lost files after the virus — disguised as an e-mail love letter — wormed its way onto their PCs. For example, the University Child Development Center lost all 1,500 of its electronically stored photos of center children.

But the virus's impact on Pitt central computer systems such as the University's IMAP server and timesharing systems was "negligible or less," said Maurice Gordon, Pitt's director of network services. "The systems that appear to have been most susceptible to this virus were non-centrally managed e-mail servers," Gordon said.

The e-mail server for Pitt's Financial Information Systems was shut down from Thursday morning, when the virus struck, through Monday morning.

"We had about 32,000 hits of the virus on our server," said Monte A. Cianciotto, director of Financial Information Systems. "That's why we shut our system down and cleaned it all out."

The cleanup included installing anti-virus safeguards on users' PCs, he said.

Cianciotto emphasized that the shutdown of Financial Information Systems' e-mail server did not affect computer systems for Payroll, Purchasing, Accounts Payable or other financial operations. "This won't affect people's paychecks, or purchase orders to vendors or anything like that," he said.

David Bohin, a systems analyst in Human Resources, said he shut down the HR server shortly after 9 a.m. last Thursday, after seeing 14 messages with the same subject heading ("I LOVE YOU") but each coming from a different sender.

"At first, I thought we were getting SPAM-ed, but within 10-15 minutes it was obvious there was more to it than that, so I shut down the part of the server that lets it accept e-mail," Bohin said.

But the virus already had breached HR's e-mail system. Subsequently, a half-dozen message recipients opened their "I LOVE YOU" messages and infected their computers.

HR systems analysts retaliated: They opened the virus on a test machine, studied the programs it affected and wrote a program (which they dubbed "I HATE YOU") that they ran on HR computers, disinfecting them by deleting affected files.

"Our server was back up and running by 3 p.m. the same day," Bohin said.

When a user opens an e-mail infected with the Love Bug virus, the virus sends new copies of itself to everyone listed in that computer's address book. The virus also corrupts and trashes electronic photo and music files.

Around the world, servers crashed after being inundated with tens of thousands of Love Bug messages. For Pitt, the virus was relatively well-timed, coming between spring and summer terms.

Network Services' Gordon said yesterday: "Right now, we're in a period where the number of messages that we have been transmitting on a particular day is a lot lower than during the busy seasons. If you went back a couple of weeks when students were taking finals, the number of messages we process in a day were significantly higher than this week or last week."

According to Gordon and others, the lesson to be learned (or relearned) from the Love Bug plague is: Never open an e-mail attachment unless you're expecting it. And even then, be careful.

Ben Carter, a senior Network Services technician, noted that some software programs are equipped with anti-virus safeguards that warn if a virus is present in an attached document or spread sheet.

"If you see one of those warnings, you shouldn't open the attachment, even if it's something you're expecting and it's from someone you know," he cautioned. "It could be that there's a virus on their system that got into the attachment."

Bohin of Human Resources said it would be easy to create a new, Love Bug-like virus that varies subject headings (not the same, telltale "I LOVE YOU" repeatedly) and attacks documents and databases, he said.

"In my opinion, [the creation and spread of e-mail viruses] is something that is probably going to be going on for a while, and it could get a lot worse," Bohin said.

— Bruce Steele

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