The virus, known as the Win2000.Install or W2K.Installer virus, inflicts no damage, but can potentially point out conceptual vulnerabilities for future virus authors, said researchers at anti-virus software makers Symantec and F-Secure. So far, Win2000.Install has not been released in the "wild," or infected users at large.
The virus and at least two variants, found several days ago, only affect Windows 2000 because the virus writers specifically earmarked it for the new operating system, said Vincent Weafer, director of Symantec's Antivirus Research Center.
"It doesn't do any particular damage. The virus writers just want to show it can be done, so other people can come and use those concepts in the future and do something bad," Weafer said. "It's new and attractive for a virus writer to write the first Windows 2000 virus. This is the first wave (of Windows 2000 viruses) and we're going to see more."
A Microsoft spokeswoman called the virus a "publicity stunt" by the virus writers to get attention. "In the world we live in, not everyone is good and nice and we should be happy that this is nothing. It's not a threat," she said.
The virus affects Windows program files and spreads when a computer user exchanges an infected program file to another computer, Weafer said.
Windows 2000 is Microsoft's update to the Windows NT 4.0 operating system and is targeted for use by corporations, not consumers. Though the company won't officially release the operating system until Feb. 17, early versions of Windows 2000 have been available to beta testers and members of the company's preview program.
The virus latches itself onto a Windows file and replicates itself, but it won't make the file size grow bigger, Weafer said. The virus causes no inherent damage, but can cause the Windows file to crash the program it's running on if the virus doesn't latch itself to the file correctly.
The virus also manages to hide from new security features Microsoft has built into Windows 2000, he said, adding that the virus worked on some beta versions of Windows 2000 and not others.
Symantec is updating its anti-virus software later this week to recognize and eliminate the virus, Weafer said. "Honestly, this is not a concern. It's not in the wild, so it's not like you'll get this in the next few weeks," he added.
Windows 2000 is the largest development project in Microsoft's history and has been delayed for more than three years. Microsoft is touting Windows 2000 as the first Windows operating system that is secure, reliable and manageable enough to run heavily trafficked Web sites.