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Virus Hunter

Extreme Jobs

Who: Motoaki Yamamura, 33
Title: Group manager
Where: Symantec Corp., Santa Monica, California

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When a patient went into a seizure in an eastern European hospital a few years ago, one of the first phone calls that the medical staff made was to Motoaki Yamamura, group manager at a renowned virus lab — for computer viruses, that is — in Santa Monica, California. Why? The hospital’s medication database had been infected by an insidious bug that was deleting and rewriting patient files. And the hospital couldn’t track down other cases like that of the seizure victim, for whom the corrupted file had instructed them to administer the wrong medicine.

As chief virus hunter for Symantec Corp., the global Internet-security technology firm, Yamamura’s day-to-day schedule is like an intense game of beat the clock. Once a call comes into the Symantec AntiVirus Research Center (SARC), Yamamura and his team of 75 engineers must simultaneously decrypt and dissect the bug, get an alert out to the media, and start developing a cure. Every minute it takes to contain an outbreak can mean terabytes of lost data, millions of lost dollars — even lost lives. The team’s average turnaround from alert to cure: about six hours.

A typical virus is hidden in screen after screen of computer code. To lay observers, it’s just nonsensical lines of letters and numbers, but Yamamura can decipher instructions and patterns among the thousands of lines of technohieroglyphics. “In some ways, it’s not a process — it’s an art,” he says.

The SARC lab wrestles with more than 50,000 viruses every month, about 300 of which are entirely new and at least 2 of which are the sort of virulent strain that result in a 2 AM distress call to Yamamura, such as last year’s “I Love You” bug. Viruses cost businesses $1.6 trillion worldwide in 2000, according to CMP’s Reality Research Consulting.

“We’ve never seen a virus that we haven’t cured,” Yamamura says. “But the real question is whether we’ve detected everything that’s out there. You can’t solve a virus that you can’t find.”