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Computer pranksters plant 'virus' in Macs

John Markoff
San Francisco Examiner, February 11, 1988 page A-1
February 1988

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A computer "virus" designed by adherents to a loose-knit philosophy called the Church of the SubGenius is creating an uproar on the nation's largest computer-information system, whose managers fear the bug may cause widespread destruction.

The bug's designers, however, say they intended to spread a message of good will with their virus, a small software program that automatically spreads itself from computer to computer. It is aimed at Macintosh personal computers.

The virus, designed to simply display an unexpected message on a computer's screen, has not actually caused any damage. In fact, it won't flash on any screens until March 2. Still, it angers Macintosh users, who fear the damage a less-benign but similar program could cause.

The programmers, who publish a magazine called MacMag in Montreal, said they had launched the virus in December. So far, the program has spread to Europe and the West Coast, as well as to Apple Computer in Cupertino.

The Church of the SubGenius is an ill-defined group of sometime pranksters that began in Texas as, in the words of one writer, a "monotheistic new-UFO cult in the 1950s" and has become a "polytheistic grab-bag in the 1980s."

In other words, said David Spector, a New York University programmer whose computer was infected by the virus, "They're a bunch of high-tech looney-tunes. It's a loose club that is something out of 'Zippy the Pinhead.'"

In recent months the specter of destructive software viruses has sparked nationwide debate because of the vulnerability of computers to invasion. Several malicious viruses that destroy computer data have been discovered in U.S. universities and corporations and in Israel. Personal computers are particularly vulnerable because they lack even the most rudimentary security mechanisms.

Compuserve, a computer-information service based in Columbus, Ohio, provides more than 50,000 PC users with electronic mail, news and bulletin boards for hobbyists. The virus got into Compuserve through an infected file placed on one of the bulletin boards, creating a booby trap for other subscribers. When they transferred the file to their computers, the virus came with it.

Neil Shapiro, moderator of Compuserve's Macintosh user group, has posted a warning about the virus.

"Do not use the [program] 'Newapp.stk' which was online here for about 24 hours," the message said. "It will mess up your system with unknown results."

Computserve officials would not comment.

Shapiro said Wednesday that he and several other programmers had spent two "horror-filled" days trying to understand the program.

"I'm aghast anyone in the Macintosh community would do anything like this," he said. "A lot of people think that doing something like this is heroic, but it really isn't. It's an insidious way of breaking into somebody's property."

However, one of the bug's designers said the virus was an "artistic" act intended to celebrate the introduction of the Apple Macintosh computer.

Peter Lount, a director of MacMag, said he and Richard Brandow, the magazine's publisher, had designed the virus to spread a "peaceful message" through the Macintosh community.

Lount said the virus was a "neoist" act that fit with the philosophy of the Church of the SubGenius.

"It's really interesting: this is madly, wildly distributing itself," he said. "We're trying to show that you can use the Macintosh to reach millions of people."

Kevin Kelley, an editor of the Whole Earth Review, a Sausalito magazine, said the Church of the SubGenius had begun as a spoof on fundamentalist religions but later had taken on aspects of a religious cult in its own right. Its founder, a shadowy Texan named J.R. "Bob" Dobbs, died in 1985.

Fred Cohen, a University of Cincinnati computer scientist, warned that while the MacMag virus might appear harmless, the potential for great damage was real.

A trivial modification of the program could make it "incredibly destructive" to information stored on a computer's disks, Cohen said.

Spector, the New York programmer, said he had discovered the program in his Macintosh Tuesday.

"I was really frightened last night at 1 or 2 in the morning when I discovered that thing was living in my system," he said.

Spector said he eventually had determined the virus was designed to do something on March 2.

Once the virus infects a Macintosh, Lount said, it will sit unnoticed inside the computer's operating system until March 2.

When someone uses the computer on March 2, it will display this message: "Richard Brandow, publisher of MacMag, and its entire staff would like to take this opportunity to convey their universal message of peace to all Macintosh users around the world." The next day, the program will destroy itself.

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