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A new viruslike attack struck computers, including some in Western New York, Tuesday, and its rapid spread threatened to slow down the Internet. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft warned that the computer outbreak could become worse than the "Code Red" worm earlier this summer.

The malicious software program, known as W32-Nimda, is complex and designed to spread to people who open infected e-mail or visit an infected Web site. The program generated more traffic on the Web, slowing down many users.

Security experts said it had already infected tens of thousands of computers, including those at several large companies. Experts monitored the outbreak and tried to figure out how it worked as it created pockets of Internet congestion and forced some companies off-line.

"There is so much traffic (caused by the worm) that it . . . makes you think the Internet is down," explained Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, a computer security think tank.

The Internet as a whole is functioning normally with no widespread slowdowns, according to the Internet monitoring firm Keynote Systems.

Across the Buffalo Niagara region, some large businesses and the University at Buffalo were affected by the virus.

The Western New York Regional Information Network, an information resource directory, shut down its two Web "server" computers, including its main public Web site, after being infected with the W32.Nimda virus, operations director Olivia Arditi said. unplugged its community Web portal Tuesday afternoon as a precaution against getting the virus and spreading it to users of the site, said Dorothy Gallagher-Cohen, Buffalo News vice president of new media and integrated marketing.

"What is so damaging about it is, this is the first time we've seen a virus that infects people's home computers just by surfing the Web," she said. The site expects to go back up by Thursday afternoon after installing software from Microsoft that inoculates against the virus.

"It seems to be widespread across campus," said Voldemar A. Innus, chief information officer at UB, where the W32-Nimda virus appears to be affecting upwards of 100 servers on both the North and South campuses of the university.

"We haven't been hit yet, but it's early," said John J. Zebracki, director of management information systems for the City of Buffalo.

The virus hit The Buffalo News on Tuesday evening, nearly halting the writing and editing of stories and delaying production of the morning editions of the newspaper.

Unaffected as of early this morning were government users including Buffalo and Erie County, the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, Erie County Medical Center and Canisius College.

RoncoNet in the Town of Tonawanda was one local business bitten by the Internet bug. The company, which provides Internet connections for companies, was alerted Tuesday morning to the attack by a customer who received infected e-mail.

The malicious code does not try to destroy data, company officials said, but can render networks unusable by overwhelming them with activity as it tries to replicate itself. Ashcroft said there is "no evidence at this time" linking this worm with the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington.

The worm can spread in many ways. It can infect Web sites running Microsoft's Internet Information Services software, as the recent Code Red worm did. Once a Web site is infected, any Web user accessing it can get the worm.

Once one computer on a company network is infected, it can also travel across the network to attack others. Finally, it can send itself through an e-mail attachment. The sender address is faked and may be a well-known address. The attachment may be named "README.EXE."

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