RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A new computer worm is spreading on the Internet. What makes this one special is that it talks back. The worm spreads itself through America Online's instant messaging system, and it convinces people that it's just another buddy. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL reporting:

This is how the worm works.

(Soundbite of computer tones)

SYDELL: A message appears in the instant message box on my computer screen. It may even have a friend's screen name.

Mr. FRANCIS deSOUZA (CEO, IMLogic): The first thing that pops up is what looks like a link to a Web site with a little message that says: LOL, that's cool.

SYDELL: Francis deSouza is CEO of IMLogic, a firm that does security for instant message services AOL, Yahoo!, and other companies. LOL is IM slang for `Laughing out loud.' If I respond to the worm in a predictable way, it has an answer.

Mr. deSOUZA: So if you say, `Is this a virus, or is this real?' it'll response saying, `No, this isn't a virus. LOL' again.

SYDELL: If I do click on the link sent by the worm, it will release a virus that disables my security software and sends itself out to all the buddies on my IM list. For some observers, this worm, dubbed IM.Myspace04.AIM, brings to mind something called the Turing Test. The test was invented in 1950 by renowned computer scientist Allen Turing. Mark Greenberg, a professor of law and philosophy at UCLA, explains, Turing's idea was that the advance of artificial intelligence could be measured by how well a computer imitates a person.

Professor MARK GREENBERG (UCLA): Whether a computer is actually intelligent is a matter of whether it can fool a human being in a conversation into thinking that the human being talking is another human being.

SYDELL: This worm has managed to fool thousands of AOL users. In an actual Turing Test, there's a judge who's supposed to ask difficult questions. But in the real world, Greenberg says most human beings can be remarkably gullible. For example, one test managed to convince people that a computer was a psychoanalyst.

Prof. GREENBERG: All it does is it takes whatever people say and throws it back to them in the form of a question. Maybe it starts off by asking you to say something about where you're from and then it simply throws it back at you: How do you feel about that?

SYDELL: This computer worm sends messages with bad punctuation and uses expressions a teen-ager might, like `Cool' and `LOL,' and that may be part of the reason people are fooled, says Paul Cohen, a deputy director at the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California.

Mr. PAUL COHEN (Information Sciences Institute, University of Southern California): The machines that do the best are those who set up the situation to lower people's expectations. So, for example, a common thing is to say, `I'm a human being, but I have a mental disease which prevents me forming grammatical sentences.'

SYDELL: Of course, if I was talking to a teen-ager, I might also have low expectations, and on IM, most people have gotten used to a world of typos, misspellings and no punctuation. Those who study artificial intelligence say they don't think this worm could pass a Turing Test with a determined judge. But those who follow the evolution of viruses worry about this latest development. Allen Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, research center on Internet security threats, says IM viruses spread faster than their e-mail counterparts, and he's worried that hackers may go further now with Internet telephone services.

Mr. ALLEN PALLER (SANS Institute): OK, so you're going to voice-over IP. The way that works is that the computer hears your voice. There's no reason why a piece of malicious software can't record your voice and use it.

SYDELL: Paller and other virus experts say make sure to double-check anyone who sends you a link, even if you think you know them. One way to be careful is to start a new chat box with the same IM buddy and see if that's really them. One virus expert says we should the same caution on the Internet that we use to avoid being mugged on a city street: Don't talk to strangers, and make sure you're speaking with a friend. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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