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Michelangelo, computer security, and the research community.

Not since the 16th century had the birthday of a Renaissance sculptor/painter aroused such an intensity of interest. Not to mention anxiety.

A computer virus named after the artist Michelangelo had infected personal computers from coast to coast. The virus was lethal-entirely capable of erasing a computer's harddisk memory. Its spread was facilitated by users who share computer disks.

As the ominous date drew near, there was a flurry of activity in offices and laboratories throughout the nation. Floppy disks were feverishly backed up, diagnostic software was shoved into machine after machine, internal calendars were scrupulously reset.

Fortunately, the computing community had sounded an alarm, and most of us took protective action. Antivirus programs were used to identify contaminated computers and render their files clean. Backup copies of important files assured users that valued information bases would continue to exist. As it turned out, March 6, 1992, was not the computer Armageddon that fatalists had predicted; business-and science-went on.

Nevertheless, the incident had profound implications for all of us who depend on personal computers, and especially those of us who are employed in the research sector. In science, such betrayal by baud and byte is an essential risk; freely shared information is our bread and butter.

In ARS, virtually every scientist and technician has access to computers, and many use more than one system. In addition to mainframes and PC' s, we depend on computerdriven laboratory equipment both for the sensing, collecting, and organizing of data and for its interpretation.

Consider, for example, field studies in which the effects of carbon dioxide on row crops are modeled. In these outdoor experimental rigs, computers control the flow of carbon dioxide into growth chambers, monitor and maintain amounts, record the responses of plants to the altered atmosphere, and then transmit the information to an indoor location where the data is backed up and manipulated.

If a virus were to interfere with any point on any link of these interdependent systems, an entire experiment's validity might be compromised. And since these experiments rely on the confluence of variables like weather and growing season, it might not be possible to replicate the experiment for some time-even years.

In terms of equipment, computerized instrumentation has revolutionized the ways we analyze substances, measure with precision, and examine even the tiniest of structures. The action we take may be driven by these precise readout capabilities. A virus released into a computer connected to a gas chromatograph at a soil analysis lab, for example, could lead to erroneous results in soil analysis and potentially to fields treated with inappropriate amounts of fertilizer.

Other sectors of agricultural research rely on large databases to manage information about pesticides, germplasm, and plant genetics-information that has been gleaned from many years of publicly funded science. Safeguarding such inestimable, irreplaceable banks of information is a matter of significant national importance.

Some government agencies, sensitive to the vulnerabilities of their computer systems, have instituted ironclad computer security policies designed to preclude information losses. Is such an across-the-board approach fight for ARS?

R. Dennis Child, ARS national program leader for range and systems, has doubts. "I don't think we need an acrossthe-board policy for PC's in offices and labs so much as we need to educate ourselves about the problem. Once we are sensitized to the risk, individual units will as a matter of course take the measures they deem necessary."

At the same time, Child freely concedes, the potential for techno-vandalism suggests cautions that do have certain policy implications.

If you need to protect your work station from shared information, you need to be more cautious about letting someone else share your office equipment. And this makes it more difficult to participate in job-sharing. The practice of taking work home via diskette and continuing on your home computer may be risky, particularly if you share your home computer with others-perhaps a teenager who loves to exchange public-domain games and other software with friends.

In a sense, we have already paid the price of viruses like Michelangelo, in terms of what we have paid for up-to-date diagnostic software and in terms of the time we've had to set aside to examine our systems. And we've paid a price even if our files turned up scrupulously clean on March 6, 1992.

But imagine for a moment that they hadn't. How would we fix a price on the value of a lost computer file? In terms of the cost of its preparation? What about the demoralizing effect of having to rekey tedious but important charts that take weeks?

Most of us would agree with computer security expert Clifford Stoll, who inveighs against viruses because "they poison the communal well."

Regina Wiggen

ARS Information Staff
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Title Annotation:Forum; computer virus Michelangelo
Author:Wiggen, Regina
Publication:Agricultural Research
Article Type:Column
Date:May 1, 1992
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