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Steve Chang has a fondness for viruses. It’s not as ghoulish as it sounds; he’s obsessed with the computer variety, not the human kind. Fortunately for him — unfortunately for us — there are a lot out there.

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In his Taipei office, Chang has collected a substantial portion of the 18,000 or so viruses infecting computers around the world. In 1990, there were only 183; that number had grown to 13,000 by 1997 and Chang believes that five or six new specimens are now being created daily.

Chang took some time the other day to paint for me a grim picture of online microbes. He estimates that about 98 percent of desktop computers have viruses. What is amazing is that despite growing awareness of the damage they can do, they continue to spread, and the virus infection rates keep rising.

What gives? In a word: the Net.

Viruses used to be localized. Since they were primarily transmitted through diskettes passed manually from computer to computer, they never traveled far. But the same network that facilitates global communication passes viruses with frightening ease. IT professionals acknowledge that desktop computers routinely harbor viruses, but they are now beginning to realize that not only clients but also servers are infected and spread bugs.

The new threat is part of the third generation of viruses, what Chang calls the “malicious Java/ActiveX code.” New programming languages “push” data onto computers. Hidden among the video streams and other data are viruses that can steal information, open trap doors, act as Trojan horses or just destroy data. Some are benign, some are fatal: Either way, there is no reason to court danger.

Chang’s fascination with viruses is not morbid curiosity. He is the founder and president of Trend Micro, a Tokyo-based company that is one of the world’s leading producers of antivirus software. The Gartner Group, an IT consultancy, considers Trend Micro the industry leader in terms of “completeness of vision.”

Making that vision real distinguishes Trend Micro from its competitors. It also offers some important lessons for digital entrepreneurs.

The first part of Chang’s strategy is pretty obvious: Figure out a way to clean up infected servers and protect the clients. That requires software that can do two things. First, it has to be able to identify and neutralize viruses — hence Chang’s collection in Taipei. Second — and this is the tough part — it must be able to find the virus in real time so that it can be filtered out. The problem is that huge amounts of data are passing through every gateway and local area network. They can be screened, but that takes time, and the digital economy is a real-time economy. If it takes time, it takes bandwidth, and both are verboten. No IT manager can go to his or her management and offer a tradeoff between efficiency and security.

Chang says he’s got the problem licked. Trend Micro’s new product offers real-time scanning of transmissions (be they e-mail, FTP or Web traffic), identifies viruses and gives managers the option of refusing the message, holding it or cleansing it.

That’s invaluable since e-commerce depends on the confidence that allows perfect strangers to conduct online transactions. While most folks view security as a confidentiality issue, Chang notes that safety and integrity of computing are just as important. Who is going to do business if they risk making their entire network vulnerable?

Businesses may rejoice, but privacy advocates have reason to pause. Real-time screening can be used for other purposes. Internet service providers and other Net-watchers have said that there is no way to filter the mass of data sloshing across the Net without slowing it to economically inefficient levels. Trend Micro’s software — and other companies are right behind — seems to suggest that is no longer true.

Chang explained that viruses are easy to find since they are usually in a given physical location in the transmission. But he conceded that a different filter could be used. That could open the door to national-level screening; you can almost hear sighs of relief from authoritarian governments.

Trend Micro has also structured its business around the Net, and the way it has done so provides excellent lessons for executives contemplating the whys and wherefores of online business.

Trend Micro clients used to receive a diskette every three months that provided new inoculations for viruses.

Nowadays, the company runs the Vaccine Bank Central Web, which was established with Softbank in 1996. The Trend Virus Control System offers 24-hour service and technical support to clients. There is a virus encyclopedia, and an area that offers fresh info on viruses.

“The Net has drastically shortened our response time to customers,” said Chang. Previously, a customer mailed a sample to Taipei, it was analyzed and a fix was prepared. The process usually took two weeks. Now, the virus is e-mailed to Chang, his staff analyzes it (in Taipei or in one of the labs around the world where his doctor-programmers work) and the fix is returned, usually within a day.

The stunning growth in the number of computer viruses means that every minute is needed. Some cynics have wondered where those viruses come from: Don’t manufacturers of antivirus software have a stake in seeing silicon biodiversity flourish? Chang laughed at the question, but then turned serious.

“There are egos at stake here. Programmers can be very competitive. Tell them a system can’t be penetrated, and they see it as a challenge.”

The stakes can be high, however, and I am not just talking about market shares in what is predicted to be a $1.6 billion business by 2000. When the computer goes down, the system stops.

Remember the basics: The doctor says an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

(Brad Glosserman)