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China to police viruses

The Chinese government announces it will implement new rules that will put the nation's police force in charge of all virus research.

In efforts to tighten its grip on the growing threat of computer viruses, the Chinese government has announced it will implement new rules that will put the nation's police force in charge of all virus research.

Businesses that want to study viruses or develop antivirus software must register with the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), according to the Xinhua News Agency. Individuals and companies that have a record of computer-related crimes will be prohibited from collecting or storing viruses for two years, Xinhua said.

The announcement comes at a time when the Chinese government is in a quandary about how to shield Internet users from politically "subversive" and pornographic content while promoting the medium for commerce and research. This past December, the government released a range of rules to prevent the spread of "harmful information" on the Internet and to impose fines and other unspecified penalties to those who violate them.

Nevertheless, by all accounts the Internet is booming in China, with official figures pinning the number of subscriptions at 620,000, and that is likely to double in six months.

Delegating authority over virus research and oversight to the police force will be a daunting task, and controlling viruses may prove to be harder than controlling the Internet. Even the ministry itself has addressed this difficulty.

"It is difficult to detect and crack down on computer crimes, which can seriously harm social security and cause big economic losses," Zhu Entao of the MPS said in the Xinhua report.

Moreover, while the MPS may be able to keep a close eye on convicted hackers and registered antivirus software developers, many researchers here in the United States regard this attempt to be futile.

For instance, virus software only protects a computer from being infected by known viruses and other virus-like properties. Antivirus software runs on heuristic technology, which tries to wean out elements carrying virus characteristics. Most of the time they are successful, but they are not fail-safe.

Trying to prevent a new virus from a network would be like trying to prevent the flu, said Gregory Sorkin of IBM's Watson Research Center.

"Since virus technology changes so rapidly, it's unlikely that any specific governmental requirements would stay relevant for long," added Sorkin. "It is hard to control virus writers, since once it spreads, a computer virus--just like a flu virus--is hard to trace back to a source."

Jonathan Wheat of the International Computer Security Association agreed. "If someone writes a brand new virus and sets it loose in a company, I don't know how the government could monitor it and crack down on it," he said. "It could get pretty bizarre about what kind of regulations they put on."