The first virus capable of damaging computer hardware is in the wild, but reports vary on whether it's a serious risk to most PC users.
The CIH virus was first discovered last month in Taiwan. Besides infecting Windows 95, 98, and NT portable executable files, CIH contains a routine that, when triggered, will overwrite the code in the infected PCs system BIOS, the software that's contained in a chip on the PC's motherboard and is loaded on boot-up to control the keyboard, disk drives, and other system functions.
According to Jonathan Wheat of the International Computer Security Association, the result is a major inconvenience.
"It flashes the BIOS with a bunch of garbage and basically renders your machine useless because if you try to boot up without a BIOS, your machine doesn't boot," explains Wheat. "You actually have to take the chip out and either have it reprogrammed or purchase a new BIOS chip. But you can't do a thing with your computer other than pop your door open until you replace your BIOS chip."
Wheat says that his organisation has received no reports of the virus yet from affected users.
But Keith Peer, president of Central Command, which markets AntiViral ToolKit Pro software in the United States, has a different picture of CIH.
"This thing is a worldwide problem. We get hundreds of reports per day... from all over the globe," he says.
Peer says AVP was the first product to detect and disable CIH, which may explain why it's receiving so many reports of the virus. He predicts another big wave of problems this Sunday, since the CIH variant 1.4 triggers on the 26th of each month.
Fortunately, many motherboards have write-protection switches that protect them from the virus, according to Peer. And since the virus only travels in infected executable files, if you don't share applications with other users, you should be safe. Finally, like many damaging viruses, CIH should contain itself somewhat, since it tends to destroy the host that it infects, preventing further infection.