I had a dream the other night that a virus had entered my home computer and had physically taken control of my mouse.

In the dream, I'm typing on the keyboard when the mouse rises up off its pad and hovers in front of my face. When I reach for it, it flies out of reach. Then it comes back and circles my head, winding its cord around my neck, pulling it tighter and tighter until É

I wake up before I am strangled by my own mouse.

As someone who's been working in computer technology for a couple of decades, I do know better. A computer mouse has no intelligence. It's not possible to make it an instrument of attempted assault.

But viruses are obviously on my mind.

It seems as if every week or two another one hits us at work. It usually starts out this way: Unexpected things happen Ñ servers go down, data are suddenly missing, or response time is dreadful. Then someone figures out we've been hit by another virus.

We assemble the usual squads of technical experts who seek out and destroy the invader. Then we repair the damage to the data. After that, the experts look to see how it got past us this time, and we all rethink Ñ again Ñ how to strengthen the firewall.

We've created a just-in-time work flow in almost every industry that depends on lickety-split, reliable technology. It's the cost-effective way to do business. Warehouse workers pull product off the shelf just as the truck is ready to leave the loading dock. We don't even pick up our plane tickets until we're ready to head to the gate.

But viruses are wreaking havoc on our just-in-time plans. When systems are down, everything stops. Workers wait. Progress comes to a halt. Clients twiddle their thumbs and stare, impatiently, at the ceiling.

We can fix the immediate problem, given time. We find the virus, restore the data and get on with it. But we know we haven't actually won.

Experienced car thieves tell us that it's impossible to secure a car against theft. It's always possible to break through, to disarm or ignore alarm systems, to saw through steel rods locked to the steering wheel. Secret codes linked to the ignition can be bypassed.

No vehicle can be completely protected from theft.

House burglars say the same thing. Alarm systems can be deactivated. Dogs can be subdued. Door locks are merely deterrents. Any burglar intent on burgling will not be stopped by a device, no matter how significant, that stands between him and his intended haul.

The same must be true for information systems. Viruses won't be stopped. We can reinforce our firewalls, apply every patch Microsoft sends us and keep virus detection software humming always on our desktops. Still, there's always an opening.

We focus on the symptoms: How do we stop the intruders? We close the latest opening; we scan the landscape looking for vulnerable points; we try to beat 'them.'

But who are 'they'? And what do they want?

Car thieves want car parts, and house burglars want silver and electronics and jewelry. What do virus-makers want?

We haven't yet addressed the real problem: What are viruses for? The perpetrators of viruses don't cart away jewelry and valuables. They don't sell fenders and steering wheels and stereo systems on a black market.

So what are they after? Just havoc?

Shoring up our ever-more-fortified security systems can take us only so far. Someday, we'll have to look harder at what virus-makers are really trying to do. Until then, we're just treating the symptom.

Susan de la Vergne is a freelance writer with 20 years of corporate management experience. She lives in Lake Oswego.

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