Rumors of a deadly computer virus were circulating on the Internet as early as the first days of June. With a phone call July 3 from an unhappy customer in New Zealand to a Southern California company that fights computer viruses, rumor edged toward fact.
The customer, the University of Auckland, sent a sample of the virus to Charles Renert, development manager for the Antivirus Research Center of the Symantec/Peter Norton Group, makers of the popular Norton AntiVirus. The head digital epidemiologist at the Santa Monica company dissected the code.
What he found was a complex rogue program that attaches itself to computer data, changing shape during each transmission, be it by Internet, by floppy disk or by any means possible.
The goal of the Hare Krisna virus: to wipe out every piece of data on any computer it comes across, flashing the message "HDEuthanasia by Demon Emperor: Hare Krisna, hare, hare" on the screen of an infected machine. Date of activation: today, Aug. 22. Prevalence: unknown. Potential for damage: great enough to send Mr. Renert and his team into emergency response mode. "We mobilized in a more aggressive response than normal," said Mr. Renert, whose product is made available on the World Wide Web in an updated version on the first of every month.
Forty-eight hours later, Mr. Renert sent a new version of the antivirus back to New Zealand. But more calls came in, one from Canada, another from Ohio. The company released its August update July 24. And another on Aug. 8.
While the highly infectious Hare virus is constructed in a way that could enable it to wipe out every file on a computer's memory, Mr. Renert and his colleagues in the antivirus industry counsel caution and safety, not panic. Every day, they note, hackers release thousands of computer viruses that fail to deliver the promised armageddon. Concerned computer users should download the updated antiviruses and back up all important material.
Found in the entrails of the virus were the dates of Aug. 22 and Sept. 22. These are the dates that the virus is set to break out.
Fortunately, said Jimmy Kuo, senior virus researcher at McAfee Associates Inc., another California-based maker of antiviruses, the computers of the world are too diverse and complex for a virus to cause total havoc. Mr. Kuo estimated that between 100 and 1,000 computers would be affected Thursday. The virus is believed to be the work of a hacker from New Zealand, Australia or Europe, depending on who's doing the digital detective work.
"For lots of creative people, writing viruses is a challenge," said Ed Sarkisian, president of Surefind, a Pittsburgh company that backs up computer users' data via the Internet. "This one appears to be a very destructive challenge."