IT goes on Y2K security alert

Some people just cannot resist throwing fuel on the fire.

Virus writers and hackers are already planning to take advantage of the chaos expected to ensue at the start of the millennium, and experts warn of the potential for hundreds of thousands of viruses to appear before the end of the year.

As IT departments begin to take steps to protect their systems from year 2000-related problems, some virus writers and hackers are hoping that viruses will escape the notice of IT managers.

Anticipating the potential barrage of new viruses, leading antivirus vendors are racing to provide extra protection in the form of updated virus-recognition files.

"We've actually already seen postings on some of the Usenet (chat) groups (for virus writers and hackers) where they are discussing how to use Y2K to 'hose' systems," said Sal Viveros, group marketing manager for total virus defence at Network Associates Inc (NAI).

To protect against year-2000-specific viruses, NAI will announce a Y2K ViruLogic update to its anti-virus applications at NetWorld+Interop in Atlanta later this month. The updated .dat file will look for specific types of information, including payloads that will have specific date and content references associated with the first day of the new year.

Time-dated viruses set to take effect before New Year's Day, such as the Thursday Virus set to activate December 13, have already been discovered, and vendors are expecting to see thousands more.

"It's possible that we could see 200,000 viruses around Y2K," said Carey Nachenberg, chief researcher at the Symantec Anti-virus Research Centre (SARC), in California. "We will see a large number of viruses that will do something on January 1."

Vendors are also warning users to be on the lookout for viruses that may try to mimic the damage expected to occur as a result of year 2000 problems, and therefore be missed by IT managers.

"Don't let yourself be fooled," said Allison Taylor, marketing manager for Total Virus Defence at NAI. "It's important that (IT managers) are familiar with their networks. Be on the lookout for something that is out of the routine."

Adding to the confusion of viruses and the year 2000 is the seasonal proliferation of electronic holiday greeting cards and the viruses that may be included in them.

"Every year, Christmas season comes around and the e-mail greeting thing becomes a real issue," said Dan Schrader, vice president of new technology at Trend Micro, an antivirus software vendor in California.

This danger is leading some users to issue policies regarding e-mail use to protect against damages.

"We're going to come out with a document that will dictate our guidelines," said Jim Constantine, manager of network administration at Reed Technologies, an electronic publisher in Pennsylvania. "We do not execute files that have been sent by e-mail unless they have been scanned first and we know who sent them."

"We are also making sure we have all the latest patches in all of our anti-virus software," Constantine added.

But because viruses, by their very nature, require human interaction and time to spread, alert IT executives should be able to uncover attacks before the damage is done, according to SARC's Nachenberg.

"Unless the virus is distributed right around Y2K, literally December 30, we're going to be able to catch most of these. Those that are distributed days won't get a lot of distribution unless it's a worm," Nachenberg said.

As always, vendors recommend users routinely update their antivirus systems.

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