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Copyright 2001 New Scientist, Reed Business Information
Alien virus invades PCs   Hazel Muir

A SCAM is sullying the hunt for alien intelligence. Someone is using a computer virus 
to cheat in the SETI@home project, in which home PCs crunch data from radio telescopes 
to look for signs of alien life.

With the SETI@home program installed, your PC sifts through a block of data and 
returns the results to a processing centre. More than 3 million people have signed up, 
and anyone who processes a lot of data may see their name posted on the SETI@home Web 
page as "Cruncher of the Week".

Now someone has written a virus that allows them to cheat. The virus spreads to 
computers through Microsoft Outlook and shuts down antivirus software. It downloads 
the SETI@home software and sets it up to perform work for the virus writer's account.

Eric Chien, chief researcher at the Internet security company Symantec's European lab 
in the Netherlands, says the virus has only infected a handful of computers. He adds 
that it would be easy for the people running distributed computing projects such as 
SETI@home to spot the culprit and shut down their account. "Someone might be sending 
data for one account from millions of machines all over the world," he says. "That's 
very unlikely to be legitimate."

David Anderson, director of SETI@home, says it would be possible to prevent the virus 
working by adding a step to the installation process so that it cannot be done 
remotely. "But this is harder than it sounds, and it would make life difficult for 
people who legitimately install SETI@home on large numbers of computers remotely," he 
says. "I don't think we'll do this."

For more science news see http://www.newscientist.com

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