Computer Viruses Are Smart, But These Vaccines Are Smarter

Attacks by computer viruses seem sure to become more common--and deadly. In two years, the number of known viruses has jumped from 200 to nearly 1,500. Moreover, some new strains can't be detected with conventional antivirus methods. That's because the Mutation Engine and similar viruses are designed to change themselves by altering their code each time they infect a new piece of software. These so-called polymorphic viruses then elude countermeasures that look for a known "fingerprint." Polymorphic viruses are believed to have originated in Bulgaria, where "virus factories" produce an estimated 20% of the 40 new strains that appear each week.

Virus-busters have responded quickly with "smart" antivirus vaccines that use artificial intelligence to spot infectious bytes before they cause much pain. For example, Central Point Software in Beaverton, Ore., says its program will warn users to shut down even when a virus is so novel that no antidote yet exists. Tests of 16 antivirus programs by the National Computer Security Assn. in Carlisle, Pa., also give top marks to ones from Microcom in Durham, N.C.; Panda Software in Wilmington, Del.; Frisk Software in Reykjavik, Iceland; S&S International in Berkhamsted, England; McAfee Associates in Santa Clara, Calif.; Parsons Technology in Hiawatha, Iowa; and Leprechaun Software in Marietta, Ga.

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