First, they divide and conquer.
Then they spread out into the world, looking for other victims to infect.
A virtual plague is breaking out in the global village, spreading with nothing more than the click of a mouse. CBS News Correspondent Thalia Assuras reports for CBS News Sunday Morning.
The culprits in this story are computer viruses. And before you think it's going too far to worry about sick computers, just consider the health of our economy:
The Internet ties together American businesses and America homes, and countless companies depend on e-mail to communicate.
"These days, companies are so reliant on e-mail, that if they can't send or receive e-mail, it costs them money," explains Kevin Poulsen, a security analyst. "The first modern Internet virus supposedly caused millions, if not billions of dollars in damages.
A human virus invades your body and makes you sick as it creates copy after copy of itself. A computer virus works the same way, literally hijacking the workings of your computer.
After your computer produces copies of the virus, it uses your Internet connection to spread them into other vulnerable machines.
The results: A potential traffic jam on the information superhighway.
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Says Poulsen, "We look at it as one type of growing biological entity in a sense, that can take over a large portion of the Internet by spreading on its own volition."
But just how do viruses get inside your computer? Usually, they get a little help -- from you.
Consider the case of last year's epidemic: The Love Bug. Early in May 2000, e-mail messages arrived on computer screens from Bali to Baltimore. To all appearances, each was a love note from a friend or coworker. Most people couldn't resist.
Shawn Hernan is part of the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT), based at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. CERT was formed in 1988, long before most of us had even heard of the Internet. Their first mission was to respond to a virus released by a graduate student named Robert Morris. Unsuspecting users were hit with millions of dollars in damages.
Then, as now, the Internet's greatest vulnerability wasn't the computers, but the people who use them.
Hernan explains that much of the problem is "a social engineering problem, not a technical problem at all... What I mean by that, in the real world, if youre walking down the street and somebod said, 'Here's a couple of pills. Take them,' you just wouldn't do that. In the computer world, people are way too accepting of that kind of stuff. What were seeing in a lot of these things is the electronic equivalent of 'take this pill.'"
Remember the old expression: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." The Internet is loaded with things that promise one thing and deliver another. But, because we use the Internet in the privacy of our homes and offices, we often forget that the global village is just that: global. And it encompasses much of the good -- and plenty of the bad -- of the whole wide world.
If the Internet is today's lawless frontier, then FBI Agent Ron Dick wants to be the new sheriff in town. He heads the multi-agency National Infrastructure Protection Center, which coordinates investigations into cybercrime, a massive challenge when the only clues lies in a trail of computer code.
Says Dick, "There are threats out there ranging from the individuals that intrude into systems, for the sport if you will, or the challenge of intruding into them; to those who do it for terrorist activities. It's not a perfect world, and there will always be vulnerabilities, and people that are willing to take advantage of those."
Yet, to all appearances, none of these so-called computer hackers has profited from the damage they have caused. So if money isn't the motive, what is?
Says Poulsen, "The people who write viruses are probably motivated by the same things that motivate people to put graffiti up somewhere. It's a matter of showing off and getting their name out there."
Poulsen is particularly qualified to speculate on what motivates these virus creators; he's a reformed hacker himself.
"There are no master criminals out there, rubbing their hands, gleefully saying, 'I'm gonna launch this virus, and it's gonna make me rich!' It really is, in most cases, a prankster or someone who wants to see their creations show up on the front page of the newspaper," he says.
Take, for example, this summer's most widespread virus: Code Red. It's an alarming name, but it actually comes from a new brand of soda. Nevertheless, it put the White House on red alert. Code Red's attempt at shutting down the White House Web site failed. But it did succeed in making the headlines.
To a hacker who's trying to make a big splash in the press, there's no bigger target than the White House. But what about your house? Why would anyone want to attack your home computer?
According to CERT's Hernan, "Well, what they're probably not looking for is your recipes, or pictures of your kid... What most people don't understand is they're looking to use your computer for their purposes."
For now, those purposes are typically to cause mischief. But the FBI's Ron Dick sees the poential for escalation. He suggests that we use the electronic equivalent of a home security system -- software that detects and blocks vruses and other intrusions.
But perhaps the simplest solution to the virus epidemic if something that everyone can use: Common sense. That is, to remember that exploring the virtual world requires real-world street smarts.
As Hernan cautions, "On the Internet, all the bad people, all the good people, all the people are one click away from you. There is no distinction between the good neighborhoods and the bad neighborhoods."
Even if we really do live in the global village, we still need to lock our doors at night.
For more information:
The FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center, and their efforts to combat cybercrime: www.nipc.gov
To see the latest news and anti-virus tips from the Computer Emergency Response Team, go to their regularly updated Web site at www.cert.org.
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