March 6, 1997 1:15 PM PST

No sign of Michelangelo virus yet

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It's that time of year again: March 6, otherwise known as Michelangelo's birthday.

While art lovers may bask in the glory of the famed artist, computer users everywhere have come to know March 6 as a day of fear and loathing since it is also the day the dreaded "Michelangelo" computer virus is slated to detonate. Every year, without fail, the six-year-old virus sparks massive attention, sometimes bordering on hysteria.

That's the fear part. The loathing comes from the antivirus communities who have to endure yet another year of attention lavished on a virus which, in relative terms, is benign.

So far today, no sign of a Michelangelo "attack" has shown up in virus newsgroups or on many virus alerts sites. Sites with databases of well-known viruses such as Symantec, Dr. Solomon, and Data Fellows haven't published any warnings yet.

Michelangelo, the virus, has achieved mythic proportions. As probably the first computer virus to which many were exposed, it has captured the attention of the American public and held it for six years.

When Michelangelo showed up on the scene, "people were not yet used to thinking of viruses as an everyday threat," explained Sarah Gordon, an antivirus researcher at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in an email interview. As a virus, she added, "Michelangelo was pretty easy to quantify."

To be sure, Michelangelo is threatening. If detonated, it could wipe out your hard drive. But if you actually use a virus protection program on your computer, your chances of getting hit by Michelangelo are just about zero.

Not that there aren't viruses to fear. There are hundreds of other viruses "in the wild," being spread primarily through computer discs and over the Internet. New ones appear on the scene every day. Some, like Michelangelo, are triggered on a specific day.

Take "Joshi," for instance. On January 5, computers affected by Joshi display the message, "Type Happy Birthday, Joshi!" according to IBM. Affected users had better do as they're told: If they don't, their computers remain frozen.

While Michelangelo may be the most famous virus, others are as well-known within the virus community. "Stoned," for instance, is fairly benign but gets a chuckle of respect even from some antivirus engineers. Stoned does nothing more than randomly display variations of the message, "Your PC is now Stoned!"

There is definitely a silver lining to the Michelangelo cloud, and that is to make computer users more aware that they can become victims of viruses. As Gordon says, "Michelangelo only happens to trigger on the infamous day. Viruses spread every day."

To protect yourself, you should install antivirus software and update it frequently to protect your system against new viruses that are constantly being created, say experts.

As always, the devil's in the details.

Reporter Courtney Macavinta contributed to this story.

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once upon a time ....
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