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Virtual fungus is the new threat to computers

Scientists confirmed the existence of a new type of virtual plague, which is neither a virus nor a Trojan Horse. U. S. Computer Science researchers are calling their discovery a “computer fungus”. The lead researcher is Antonio de Marco, associate professor at West California University.

Just like fungi and mold, which attack photos and cassette tapes from past century, the virtual fungus degrades image, sound, and video files stored on computers. “The problem occurs even with backup files that are rarely accessed”, says de Marco. Scientists found out an average quality loss of about 7% a year for JPEG images, 15% a year for TIFF images and 4% a year for MP3 files. Other infected files are QuickTime videos, followed by AVI files, with 9% a year.

Arjun Radhakrishnan, Ph.D. in Applied Computer Science at Stanford, explains that this virtual fungus has not yet been detected because its effects are gradual and insidious. “The typical PC user never thinks about this, because performance loss of the operating system itself is trivial”. According to him, people consider it understandable that pirated music from Napster in 2000 sounds a little bit degraded with time, as well as porn images downloaded from the web get smaller and fuzzy. Photoshop files are opened with unexplainable wrong colors, get dark and fade. Movies open in progressively tinier windows. Even texts may deteriorate, having their accented characters mixed up.

These would be some symptoms of the digital fungus. The effects are visible when comparing a digital photo to its printed copy from when it was brand new. “There was a progressive degradation of almost all these materials, and many may not resist until the next decade”, says Radhakrishnan.

Transmission of the disease does not appear to be caused by hackers. Environmental factors may be involved. Houses with more than one computer also have more chances. Using cell phones or having plasma TVs and air conditioning may also be risk factors.

While there is no commercial software solution to it, the researchers recommend making daily backups of your files and keeping them on older and durable medias, like CD-R or floppy disks; transcribe ripped videos from DVD to VHS; send all photos to a lab to be printed on paper. “This is the only way to ensure longevity of your digital data”, points out de Marco.

Thanks to the folks at and MAC+.

Update: original text was translated from Portuguese by Julio Cesar Silva Santos (, at first I thought it was a group effort. Thanks Julio!