Computer viruses used to spread most commonly through games or shareware. Such notorious early viruses as Michelangelo and The Sunday Virus would erase important executable files from your computer's hard drive on designated days.
Nowadays, the common practice of E-mailing a Micro-soft Office 97 word-processing document or spreadsheet from one office to another can spread dangerous macro viruses like Concept and Laroux, which affects Microsoft's Excel, even faster.
"Just reading an infected document E-mailed to you can infect every document on your hard disk," says Steve R. White, senior manager at IBM Research. Another industry observer notes that an infected document placed on a network server could infect hundreds of documents stored on it, thereby contaminating files throughout an entire network.
IBM is developing a subscriber service to stop epidemics before they reach your hard drive.
Running on a subscriber's desktop computer, the company's new software will check your E-mail when it arrives, quickly E-mail relevant data to a computer at IBM, and automatically kill any virus IBM's system identifies. Users will no longer have to run infected messages or documents through a cumbersome anti-virus program to clean corrupted files.
The technology will be available to customers at the end of 1998, according to White. The price of the service has not yet been determined.
While waiting for IBM's new service, users would be well advised to install anti-virus software on their computers. The following major vendors can be found on the Internet: IBM (www.av.ibm. com), Symantec (www.symantec. com), Network Associates (www. mcaffee.com or www.networkassociates.com), and Data Fellows (www.datafellows.com).
New macros can spread very quickly, so be sure to subscribe to the vendor's update service, and download the latest versions of its software at least once a month.
John Hancocks, Electronically
The State of Utah is particularly sensitive to the authenticity of legal files it receives. Until recently, it verified filings the old- fashioned way: with a penned signature. Now the state is moving to a system that will allow any state attorney to submit court filings via E-mail authenticated by a technology called "digital signatures." In 1995, Utah passed the Digital Signature Act, which gives digital signatures on E-mail documents the same legal standing as handwritten signatures on paper documents.
The ramifications extend to corporations, says Ken Allen, digital signature coordinator at the Utah Department of Commerce. "Within two years, we'll have personnel time sheets, procurement proposals--anything that requires a signature--being done electronically," he claims. Digital certificates can also be used to encryptdocuments so that they can be read only by the intended recipient.
Anyone with a computer and the right software can become a certification authority (CA) and issue digital certificates or send E- mail with digital signatures. When you send a digital certificate, you get two large number codes, a public key--which you publicize--and a private key available only to you. You use the private key to encrypt a message that can be decoded only with the public key, and vice versa. To send a message to someone, you encrypt the message with his public key, and only he can decrypt it with his private key. The same method works for authentication of documents sent back and forth.
However, the security of a digital certificate depends on the security of the CA computer. For that reason, firms using certificates for electronic commerce should consider outsourcing the CA function. The State of Utah outsources to Digital Signature Trust Co. (www. digsigtrust.com) of Salt Lake City, which secures its computers at a state-of-the-art site able to withstand even earthquakes and floods. According to a company spokesperson, a typical electronic-commerce setup costs companies $50,000 to $200,000. Monthly fees for the service vary from $15,000 to $69,000.
You can, of course, set up a CA station in-house--if your office is secure. CA software is available from VeriSign Inc. (www.verisign.com), Entrust Technologies Ltd. (www.entrust.com), and CertCo LLC (www.certco.com). Prices are typically a few thousand dollars, plus two or three dollars more for each certificate issued.