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Virus infiltrates response groups

BY SUSAN KIM | Baltimore, MD | May 8, 2000

Whether known as the Love Bug virus -- or one of its many mutations -- the computer virus that infiltrated e-mail systems worldwide also hit response and

relief organizations.

Called the most virulent computer virus ever known, Love Bug was a "worm-like" virus that, once opened, sent itself to hundreds of other Internet users,

overloaded computer networks, and deleted or corrupted files. When opened it searches for the user's address book and sends itself to everyone listed. It

can even spread through networked fax machines and pagers. Now mutations -- disguised as everything from a joke to an invoice for Mother's Day

diamonds the user may or may not have purchased -- have millions of people anxious about opening their e-mail.

The virus cost millions of dollars in damages worldwide. It penetrated millions of computers including those of the Pentagon, CIA, and British Parliament,

also affecting brokerages, food companies, media, auto, and technology giants worldwide. Universities and medical institutions have also been hit.

And so have disaster response organizations and agencies. Most were able to clean their systems -- but many said that's simply because they were lucky or

that they "dodged the bullet." Many were left wondering what they would do about disaster response if "the worst" -- an Internet blackout -- had happened.

Others are beginning to call into question the vulnerability of the Internet in relation to the importance of the information sent across it.

At the Michigan-based Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), which shares a building with its denominational headquarters, "we had

about 200 people receive it out of 200 users," said Tom Bratt, resource development planner. "And six people opened it."

CRWRC was able to clean the virus off its computers and return its e-mail system to normal within a day. "We update our virus protection software

constantly," he added.

Like CRWRC, other response organizations dodged significant damage from the Love Bug virus. But many were left wondering if it's not time to create a

backup plan -- just in case. Especially since so many depend on the Internet and on e-mail for vital disaster-related information and communications.

None of some 400 staff at the Maryland-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS) opened the computer virus, thanks to an early-morning warning sent from its

in-house help desk, said Jennifer Lindsey, director of media relations. And that's a good thing - with a New York office and 80 worldwide field offices, CRS

relies on e- mail for a significant amount of staff-to-staff communication. "Eighty percent of my communication is over the Internet," said Lindsey, adding

that she also uses the Internet to check for pertinent news each morning. "We've never had e-mail go down throughout the whole network," she added.

Maryland-based Lutheran World Relief also received its warning early. "This was a storm that didn't happen," said spokesperson Jonathon Frerichs. But if

e-mail had gone down, "we would revert to phones and faxes," he said.

At least one relief group wasn't worried about the virus at all. "We're not using Microsoft products," said Peter Passage of the Mennonite Central Committee

(MCC). "But if it had hit us it could have closed us down pretty good."

Passage added that, if the Internet or e-mail system was down for a long period of time, "it would set us back for 10 years."

For the Salvation Army, communication via e-mail and the Internet has "been growing drastically," said Steve Norris, assistant development director. "When

you have a virus, it could really knock down an organization. We have all the virus protection."

But there was no digital anecdote for the Love Bug virus. "If everything went down, well, we still have all our printed forms," said Norris. "We're not totally

disabled if e-mail went down -- but it would hurt."

JoAnne Jones, an American Red Cross public affairs officer, said she received the virus but didn't open it because she had been trained "to think twice before

I open anything like that."

"During a disaster, I can receive 10 to 20 e-mails in less than an hour," she said. "I depend on e-mail a lot. It's a very good tool and it's very time-effective. We

send so much information through e-mail."

If e-mail went down, she said, she would resort to using the telephone and the fax machine. "But that's more time consuming."

When tornadoes hit Camilla, GA earlier this year, Jones used the Internet to find out what she needed to know. "That morning I turned on the TV, switched

channels for awhile and found nothing. In my hometown newspaper, I found nothing. But I got on the Internet and found all I needed to know. It's

super-important."

A young Philippine couple, both bank workers, were named Monday as the main suspects in the creation of the virus. As anti-virus developers continue to

work on a cure, some organizations have added filters to their mail gateways to block executable attachments such as Visual Basic Scripts (VBS). The Love

Bug virus was written in VBS.


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