Computer security experts around the world scrambled Friday to cope with new versions of a rampant e-mail virus, as top secret computers at the US Pentagon and State Department came under attack from at least five new variants.
The Pentagon said classified defense department computer systems had been infected, but spokesman Kenneth Bacon said there were "no reports that the virus had an impact on military operations."
It was unclear Friday how the virus penetrated the defense department's classified computers, which use their own fiber-optic lines and computer terminals, precisely in order to prevent intrusions by hackers.
The joint task force on computer network defense, a specialized unit dedicated to combating cyber attacks, is investigating the penetration, bacon said. Only one percent of the system was affected, however.
US State Department servers also registered 125,000 hits from the virus, but succeeded in eradicating them, according to a department official.
However, the United Nations headquarters in New York escaped damage from the virus, UN spokesman Farhan Haq said.
"Our e-mail system was shut down for about an hour as a precautionary measure, but it is hard to say that the bug did any real damage," Haq said. He was unable to confirm reports that the UN's food and agriculture organization in Rome was hit.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation, meanwhile, launched an inquiry into the origin of the computer bug, the agency's national infrastructure protection center announced in a statement, also warning of "new variants" of the virus.
US authorities were working with Filipino investigators in an effort to track down its author, after Internet service providers in the Philippines admitted the virus had begun on their servers.
The virus appeared Thursday and spread around the world in a matter of hours via an email with the message "iloveyou." it was circulating Friday with new messages, including "joke," very funny" and "mother's day order confirmation."
The original bug was planted last month by a hacker who identified himself as "mailme", "spyder" and "ispyder" and left a message saying "i hate to go to school."
According to a tracking site maintained by trend micro inc., a leading provider of anti-virus software, some 3.1 million computer files had been infected worldwide as of 1000 GMT Friday.
A total of 2.5 million files had been infected in North America, 325,000 in Europe, 129,000 in Asia and 25,500 in Australia and New Zealand.
In Latin America, Argentina appeared hardest hit with 150,000 users affected while the bug was mitigated in Asia because it was unleashed after the end of the business day.
With most offices closed for national holidays, however Japan, with 13,000 infected files, and China, with just 3,800, got off lightly.
Three Hong Kong government computers were infected, though no data or files were lost, said officials.
The latest mutations to watch out for may be "love" virus copycats, which have the potential to cause even more damage to computer systems, according to Val Viveros of Mcafee, a unit of California-based software security firm network associates.
Mcafee president Gene Hodges cited estimates provided by a California research group computer economics putting the damage so far to computer systems at 2.6 billion dollars. Hodges added: "it may go as high as 10 billion dollars."
That compared to damage from all computer viruses in 1999 of 12.1 billion dollars, he said.
Computer economics said in a statement that it estimated 45 million e-mail users received the love bug virus in its first day of circulation "and that number is growing quickly."
Samir Bhavnani, a spokesman for computer economics, said that around one percent, or 450,000 users, opened the attachment and were infected.
He said damage is still being assessed but noted, "the major damage we're seeing is the network down time ... This is economic terrorism." -- WASHINGTON, (AFP)
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