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Microsoft Word Macro Viruses Infect Campus Computers

By Thomas R.Karlo
Executive Editor

Viruses that infect Microsoft Word documents are affecting MIT computer users in increasing numbers, according to Gerald I. Isaacson, MIT's data security manager.

The viruses depend on the increasingly powerful macro language included in software such as Microsoft Word and Excel. These programs allow operations such as copying, deleting, and editing files to be performed without user interaction.

Incidents of the virus infecting computers have come from many different departments. "I get approximately one to two calls a day" requesting assistance dealing with the virus, Isaacson said. "The macro viruses spread very, very rapidly."

"Macro viruses are not really new, but there's really been a tremendous increase in the past year," Isaacson said.

The viruses affect all computer platforms that run Microsoft Word, infecting both PC-compatible and Macintosh computers. Although the possibility of such viruses being written was first noted by researchers in 1989, the first time such a virus were seen "in the wild" was in 1995, when the Word Macro Virus Concept was discovered.

Macro viruses particularly sneaky

Macro viruses are seen as particularly problematic by security experts because they are transmitted inside documents, rather than applications. "While users rarely share [programs] or boot from diskette, a large part of their job involves the exchange of data files,"according to a1996 report by the National Computer Security Association.

The increasing power of macro languages in programs adds to the concern that macro viruses constitute a major threat to users. To date, the most common viruses have been relatively harmless.

"Some macro viruses give you a message. Some erase your hard drive just by opening the file," Isaacson said. So far, relatively few MITusers have suffered losses, but the process of removing the virus can take some effort, as every floppy in an office must be checked for infection, he said.

MIT increases software updates

In response to the problem, MIT has increased the frequency of updates of the anti-virus software it distributes from quarterly to monthly. The software, Dr. Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit, is available for use on any machine owned or administered by MITfaculty, staff, or students, and supports most major commercial operating systems.

Using anti-virus software helps foil the majority of attacks. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, [virus infection] is avoidable," Isaacson said.

Anti-virus software and information is made available by MIT's Information Security Office on the World Wide Web at http://web.mit.edu/security/www/ .