February 9, 2009 in Idaho

Computer virus afflicts NIC

By The Spokesman-Review
Kathy Plonka photo

“It was clear from the start that it was widespread,” says technical support specialist Richard Mathews on Monday, Feb. 9, 2009, as he continues to work to eradicate the computer virus that hit North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene last week.
(Full-size photo)

Teams of computer technology specialists are cleaning North Idaho College’s 1,200 faculty and staff computers — one by one — to eradicate a pervasive and destructive virus that hit campus a week ago.

On Friday, information technology staff realized the virus wasn’t responding to the most recent anti-virus software. That’s when the college ordered faculty and staff computers shut down until they could be confirmed safe.

Over the weekend, the college contacted Microsoft Corp.’s anti-virus team, ForeFront. NIC personnel learned the college was among only about 20 sites worldwide to be suffering the effects of two particularly insidious strains of a virus, called virut.bm and virut.bh. NIC sent Microsoft programmers samples of infected computer code and it was used to tailor-make a patch to eradicate the virus. That’s when the real work began.

“Somebody said to me last week, ‘This is your snowstorm, isn’t it?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, this is the storm of the century,’ ” said Steve Ruppel, the college’s information technology director. “We have the methodology to win now, to beat this, and I think it’s going to take some time.”

The campus has gone into crisis mode, with administrative meetings three times daily and regular updates posted on all campus buildings and on the Web site, www.nic.edu. “Safe” computers have been established at the college’s library from which staff can work. Green and red labels mark every campus computer indicating which are safe or unsafe. Those with red tickets should not be turned on, Ruppel said.

Despite the emergency, classes have gone on as planned and few if any student computers have been infected. However, an estimated 90 percent of the college’s faculty and staff computers have been infected and each one takes 30 minutes to two hours to clean. In the best-case scenario, all college computers would be restored by Wednesday night, Ruppel estimated.

The virus attaches itself to movable files such as e-mails, then uses them to reproduce. Users would see repeated error messages or would boot up a computer only to have it flash back to a blank screen or a screensaver. Or applications just wouldn’t run at all.

The good news, said Stacy Hudson, a college spokeswoman, is that the college’s core server appears to be secure. Student and employee data has not been compromised, Hudson said.

Though the team now has the technology to beat the virus, getting to that point has been a long, exhausting battle, Ruppel said. “My staff is tired from some of them not sleeping now for 48 hours.”

He asked for cooperation and patience from the college’s 1,200 employees and close to 5,000 students. Besides asking that they not use computers marked with red tickets, he’d like people with minor computer issues to try to solve them on their own and not call information technology until the virus is under control.

“We basically kicked into crisis communication mode,” Hudson said. “This is a campuswide crisis. The risk of re-infection is very high.”

Contact Alison Boggs at (208) 765-7132 or alisonb@spokesman.com.

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