SUNYA STUDENT SUSPENDED FOR COMPUTER 'VIRUS'

Jay Jochnowitz Staff writer
Section: LOCAL,  Page: B1

Date: Thursday, June 16, 1988

A student who said he was experimenting with a computer "virus" when it went out of control and attacked one the central computers at the State University at Albany found officials unimpressed with his ingenuity.


The student was suspended, ordered to pay $2,000 in restitution and will have to reapply for admission if he wants to continue to attend the university. "He was a good kid, not malicious, and out to show how clever he was and unaware of the consequences," said Patricia Panzle, director of SUNYA User Services, part of the university's Computer Center. Panzle was dissatisfied with an earlier judgement against the student, whose name is not being released, and successfully appealed for a harsher penalty. She said Wednesday she felt suspension was appropriate partly because of the potential for destruction inherent in computer viruses.


"If someone causes a fire in a dorm, how serious do you treat it if the student only burns one room? Do you wait until he kills nine people?"


Computer viruses, a relatively new form of computer mischief - or vandalism - are programs designed to perform a series of commands that can be as simple as printing out a message or as complex as wiping out a system's memory. A common thread, though, is the virus' ability to reproduce like a biological virus would in a human body, replicating itself and latching on to programs or discs shared by users.


The incident was believed to be the first time a virus has been found in the SUNYA computers.


According to Panzle and other university officials, the student revealed in early March he had been working on a virus on the computer center's main unit, but that it had gotten out of control and was apparently running through the system. The student reportedly didn't know exactly what the virus would do.


Panzle described the virus as basic, simply a code whose sole purpose was to replicate itself by latching on to other programs, with no outward signs. Stephen Rogowski, director of the university's microcomputer acquisition and development, likened it to a cancer in which the cells are not toxic but kill when they have taken over an organ to the point where it can't function.


As the virus kept replicating itself, the computer began to slow down noticably. The mainframe's workload - defined in "jobs" and normally measuring a few hundred jobs a day - soared to an estimated 5,000 jobs.


While Panzle said the program was "clever," she was otherwise unimpressed and sharply critical. Left uncontrolled, the virus would have shut the system down, she said. "A virus is never written for a good purpose."


Panzle said the student's warning helped the computer center detect the problem and eliminate the virus by meticulously killing the codes off. It cropped up one more time in a program that had been missed, according to Alice Corbin, judicial director with SUNYA Student Affairs, but the system is believed to be "cured."


The virus did not escape the SUNYA system, which is linked nationally and internationally to other universities, and users did not lose data they had already stored, but Panzle said students and other users had to go into their programs to find the code and destroy it.


She estimated that staff and computer time cost the university about $2,000.


Corbin acknowledged suspension is a severe step, normally reserved for students guilty of such things as serious fire safety violations, persistent fighting or cheating. The student, who completed the school year before the judgement came, may reapply for admission. If the student does return and wants to pursue computer studies, he would be granted full access to the system again, Panzle said.