Frantic search for virus which has wreaked havoc on PCs worldwide

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The Independent Online

Experts were engaged in a frantic race last night to find 20 home computers harbouring a program that threatened to cripple the internet.

Experts were engaged in a frantic race last night to find 20 home computers harbouring a program that threatened to cripple the internet.

Computer security analysts only realised late on Thursday that the Sobig.f virus, which had brought havoc to the world's computers this week, included a potentially disastrous sting in its tail.

Secret code in the virus, which is still being sent by e-mail at a rate of around one million copies a day, was secretly ordering all the computers it had infected to make contact with 20 home PCs with high-speed broadband connections at 8pm last night.

Those 20 PCs were in turn programmed to direct the infected computers to a website where they would download a mystery program. It was not known what the program would do, but possibilities ranged from a relatively harmless joke to a virus or spam attack.

Computer security firms and police were desperately searching for the 20 computers. If all could be switched off, the virus's threat could be averted.

Mikko Hypponen, anti-virus research manager at Finland's F-Secure, said 10 of the computers had been found by early evening. "We've taken more than half offline but if one is left standing, there will be an attack," he said.

As the 8pm deadline passed last night, the internet did not appear to be suffering a severe slowdown. Experts said the period between 8pm and 11pm was expected to be the most hazardous. A second time trigger is set to be activated again at the same time tomorrow.

Ms Theriault said the virus, which has been clogging inboxes with unwanted spam messages, was showing no signs of abating. "In the last 24 hours, we have had 300,000 e-mails - it has been more or less constant since Monday."

The first copies of the virus were noticed on Monday morning. It spreads when computer users open file attachments in infected e-mails, which have such headings as "Thank You!" or "Re: Details". It then resends itself to scores of email addresses and signs the email using a random name and address from the infected computer's address book.

Dissenting voices within the hi-tech community, however, cautioned that computer security firms had a vested interest in hyping the impact of viruses. Simon Copeland, of the software makers Avecho, said anti virus companies profited most when alarm about viruses was at its height.

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