Global alert over computer 'worm'

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An unprecendented international alert was issued yesterday over a fast-spreading, destructive computer "worm" that is set to infect hundreds of thousands of systems around the world tonight – and has already forced the Pentagon to close most of its sites.

The "Code Red" virus – more accurately known as a worm because it can spread across networks with no help – defaces websites with the words "Hacked by the Chinese" and greatly reduces a system's speed. For the first 20 days of each month, the worm spreads from computer to computer. Then, from the 20th, it blitzes US government websites. On the first day of every month, the cycle starts afresh.

When the worm first surfaced two weeks ago, it infected more than 300,000 com- puters worldwide. Experts have warned that it could be much more damaging when it reactivates at 1am tomorrow, British time. Yesterday a joint alert was issued by various US government bodies, including the FBI, as well as Microsoft, whose software it exploits.

No one knows who is behind the worm, though it is presumed that it began in the US.

Ron Dick, head of the US National Infrastructure Protection Centre, an arm of the FBI, said: "The internet has become indispensable to our national security and economic wellbeing. Worms like Code Red pose a distinct threat."

Experts say that computers running Microsoft Windows NT or Windows 2000 and Microsoft's Internet Information Server 4.0 or 5.0 are most vulnerable. People with such software have been advised to visit for instructions on how to download a software patch that protects against Code Red.