Are all Java viruses on the Web a hoax?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 September, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 September, 1997, 12:00am

A few days ago I received an e-mail from a friend warning of a new Java virus on the Web called Mr Bean. According to this e-mail, the Mr Bean virus is extremely dangerous, can corrupt my system and even damage my hard disk physically.

The scary part is that it is supposed to reside on Web sites and can be picked up by just about anyone visiting that site and making use of its Java capabilities.

While I take any warning about a virus threat seriously, this one set off some other alarm bells. The structure of the message was strikingly similar to one that I received quite a while ago about a virus called Good Times. As you pointed out in one of your columns, the Good Times virus was a hoax.

Is the Mr Bean virus a hoax, too? Are Java viruses that reside on Web sites and pounce on you also a myth? JONATHAN COOMBES Mid-Levels Other than the chain of coffee bars of that name, and the character played by British comedian Rowan Atkinson, I have not come across a Mr Bean, virus or otherwise. I hope you did not forward that virus warning to anyone else. It does sound like a hoax and the dissemination of these hoax warnings on the Net by well-intentioned individuals such as your friend does much more harm than good.

In some cases the recommended protection methods would kill your computer. And, if nothing else, they are an incredible waste of time.

The language and origin, can give you clues about the nature of the message, i.e. is it a hoax or not? You can also do your own searches on the Web for the name of the supposed virus. You can do what you did by writing in to me or asking someone who may know, before panicking and sending the warning off to dozens of other friends who will only repeat the process ad infinitum.

Nevertheless, Java viruses are not a myth. Earlier in the year a very genuine warning was put up by the US Department of Defence about a Web-resident Java virus that caused a threat to people using Netscape version 2.0 and 2.1. The only way to protect yourself was to disable Java in your browser.

This virus was a 'hostile' Java applet known as a Black Widow, and was only one of many that researchers discovered on the Web. It would be downloaded and executed automatically when a user visited a host site. It could destroy data and interfere with your network, and could even upload data from your computer to a third party.

ActiveX, Microsoft's answer to Java, is also no stranger to viruses. Microsoft itself has been doing a lot to combat the threat of ActiveX viruses, and has even gone after Internet service providers hosting sites that in turn have been found to host ActiveX viruses. These Java and ActiveX viruses are particularly dangerous since they are downloaded on the fly when you visit a Web site, and may not necessarily attack your computer but remain dormant until they have been passed around a few times.

A friend of mine from anti-virus maker Trend recently likened these Java and ActiveX viruses to the AIDS virus in humans. 'When you connect to a computer on the Internet, remember that you are connecting to every computer that computer has ever connected to before,' he said. He was trying to be funny but I was not laughing. It is a serious problem.

Anti-virus companies such as Trend, McAffee and Symantec to name but a few are now falling all over themselves to build effective ActiveX and Java virus protection into their programs and making some headway.

The old advice about using the latest anti-virus software, updating it regularly, and backing up your system regularly still stands.