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Bulgaria: Institute Battles Computer Viruses

Sofia, 2 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- "Dark Avenger," "Michelangelo," "Jack the Ripper" and "Anthrax" are the names of computer viruses that can make the hair of many computer owners in the world stand on end. All of these tiny computer codes have been devised with the sole purpose of destroying data or software stored on computer hard disks. All of them are reputed to have originated in Bulgaria.

In the early 1990s, the international media sounded the alarm over what it saw as the proliferation of malicious computer programs written by frustrated computer users living in post-communist Bulgaria. The programs were distributed initially through floppy disks and later through the Internet. They affected thousands of users throughout the world and caused considerable financial damage to both individual computer owners and to big corporations that found their networks paralyzed as a result of virus infections.

But in recent years the media frenzy has died down somewhat. "Without justification," says Evgeni Nikolov, director of the Bulgarian Institute of Computer Virology. His small team stationed on the outskirts of Sofia discovers anything from 100 to 300 computer viruses a month. Nikolov calls his work "a war like any other war --with attacks, counterattacks and many, many casualties."

Operating on a state budget of only some $14,000 a year, the non-commercial Institute is apparently the only one of its kind in Europe. Its main purpose is to identify and isolate new computer viruses, to produce and update anti-viral programs, and to ensure the security of computer communications.

Nikolov, who has a doctorate in mathematics and has worked with computers for the past 22 years, told an RFE/RL correspondent in Sofia that the most dangerous viruses he uncovers are brand new ones --approximately, three a month. He says: "These are malicious programs that have an unclear purpose. They may be innocent: for instance, they may just display a silly message on your desktop or change the look of some of the icons."

But, Nikolov adds, "they may also be extremely dangerous. They can erase data on your hard disk. They may affect a whole network and crash it at any given time." He says that "the most difficult task is to understand what the virus aims at. Once you get the idea behind it, it's easier to combat."

The bulk of Nikolov's work, however, consists of fighting mutations of already existing viruses. He says that "many viruses that we (already) know of have been changed, consciously or subconsciously. They may mutate like a living organism." He also says his institute generally finds over 250 mutations a month and is forced, in his words, "to update anti-viral programs so as to be able to detect and intercept old viruses in new clothes. In some cases, they can be extremely resistant."

According to Nikolov, the mentality of computer hackers has changed since the early days of virology. He says that several years ago "kids who wrote viruses wanted to tell the world, here we are, we are Bulgarian, we hate you, and we want to destroy your computers." But Nikolov says this is no longer the case. Now computer virus developers have what he calls a "positive" attitude. He says some "want to promulgate a specific political idea. For example, some very nasty bugs were created during the (1990) Gulf War. They were meant to show the world their authors' opposition to both (Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein and to America's involvement in the Gulf."

Nikolov says that "any virus is a form of vengeance," adding that some of the major software companies even create their own viruses to protect their software from piracy. He says he has seen "cases when a brand new (software) product starts destroying files on the hard disk if it is copied illegally or is tampered with." He says: "No respectable software producer will admit this but most of them encode their own products with bugs. This is basically a form of regulation and protection."

Nikolov, who considers himself partly a scientist and partly an electronic detective, says one of the main problems in fighting computer viruses in Bulgaria is the lack of legislation. He says: "No one has been brought to justice in Bulgaria for creating viruses and destroying data. In fact, whatever the damages incurred, producing viruses is not a crime in Bulgaria." He adds: "There is some legislation protecting electronic banking safety but that is all. The government does not acknowledge the need to protect computer users from viruses and hacking."

In Nikolov's view, the danger from viruses is growing because of the way computer systems have evolved. He says that, "with the advent of superconductors and the continuing networking of computers through the Internet, many household appliances, not just computers, become interconnected. For instance, people and corporations use one and the same wire to talk on the telephone, to send e-mail, to surf the net, and to watch cable television. In the near future, other appliances will be hooked to the global network, too." Nikolov concludes: "Unless we fight computer viruses effectively, we may find ourselves in the silly position of having our washing machine unable to start as a result of a computer virus."

Because they destroy data and cause other damage, viruses are generally seen as a negative phenomenon in the computer word. But Nikolov -- whose job it is to fight them -- says that, ironically, they also have positive side effects. He explains: "Computer viruses may cause damage but they have brought on immense technological development. If it weren't for the fear of viruses," Nikolov says, "computer technology would not have made such rapid progress."