Are viruses Y2K compliant?

As if there isn't enough uncertainty about Y2K, computer virus experts advise extra care to inoculate before the century turns, lest a virus take advantage of Y2K chaos.

Their concern? A millennium virus may go unnoticed in the Y2K confusion. A virus set to activate as the calendar rolls over might cause damage that people will blame on Y2K, which would allow the virus to spread more quickly, say some experts.

On the other hand, virus authors are an egotistical bunch who may not want to share their 15 minutes of fame with another media event like the new millennium.

"We expect there will be some kind of virus attack," says Sal Viveros, Network Associates group marketing manager for the Total Virus Defense Product, which includes McAfee VirusScan. "When systems fail, administrators might not think of a virus and head off on a wild goose chase in order to solve the problem."

Network Associates has already found six viruses keyed to Y2K, Viveros says. He expects many more are set to deliver their payload either January 1 or on January 3, when people return to work.

Antivirus vendor Panda Software sounded the alarm early. Its Web site warns that many viruses rely on date stamps to operate, and it's uncertain how they'll behave in 2000.

"Y2K has an unpredictable effect, and you can't just leave it to chance," says Pedro Bustamante, executive director of Panda's U.S. office. "A lot of people have outdated virus [protection] programs, and this gives them a false sense of security."

Like the potential effect of Y2K on banking, power, and software, no one can say for sure what viruses will do. Perhaps virus authors will take the opportunity to create a monumental meanie.

"There might be a few new viruses written that the author hopes will not be noticed in the general background noise of champagne corks popping," says Ross M. Greenberg, an author of early antivirus products and former manager of MSN's Computing Central's Safe Computing Forum. "But, generally, a virus author wants their little creation to be noticed. There would be no delight in their creation's damage not being credited to whatever name they hide behind if Y2K took the credit for it."

Viveros disagrees, saying that Y2K is the ultimate challenge for a virus author.

"What better time to unleash a virus than when everyone is watching?" Viveros asks.

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