Rivals in the fight against computer "viruses" are spending much of their time battling each other instead of their common enemy: the software invaders that can secretly destroy computer data.

The dispute concerns which of two groups has the qualifications and impartiality to evaluate anti-virus software for customers. The competition could slow progress in combating the viruses."I personally know most of the people in this industry and I have never seen this kind of animosity," Brian Camenker, head of the PC users group of the Boston Computer Society, said Tuesday.

The battle centers on products - called "vaccines" - that are designed to combat viruses. Viruses are tiny pieces of computer code that pranksters or others slip into normal programs to "infect" computers when used.

Although they are rare and have done limited damage so far, viruses are feared because of their potential to be spread from one computer to another, wiping out millions of dollars' worth of data in minutes.

Publicity about recent viruses - including those dubbed the "Christmas Virus," the "Black Friday Virus" and the "Pakistani Brain" - led to anti-viral software products, but there is no easy or reliable way to know whether they work.

Customers and producers agree on the need for an independent panel of experts to review the software. The question splitting the industry is who should be in charge.

Pitted against each other are the 2-month-old Computer Virus Industry Association, based in Santa Clara, Calif., and a loose collection of other computer experts led by Jon R. David, a consultant in Tappan, and Harold Highland, editor of Computers & Security magazine in Elmont.

The controversy heated up Monday with the publication of a front-page article on the debate in MIS Week, a trade newspaper.

Each side accuses the other of using sloppy techniques and manipulating the testing process for its own purposes. The intensity of the debate has left some software developers disgusted with the whole business.

An independent testing panel is essential because most computer users have never seen a virus. If they had a useless defense, they would not know it until a virus caused problems.

"This kind of testing needs to be done professionally and carefully, particularly if other people are going to place reliance on it," said Robert V. Jacobson, president of New York-based International Security Technology Inc.

Jacobson has cautiously thrown his support behind the Computer Virus Industry Association, which was formed in June by a group led by John McAfee, president of InterPath Corp. of Santa Clara.

The association is assembling an independent university testing panel composed of people from three New York-area colleges: Pace University, Adelphi University and Sarah Lawrence College. The panel is headed by John Cordani, who teaches computer science at Adelphi and Pace.

David and Highland say Cordani and the three schools don't have the necessary credentials. They also say McAfee's InterPath products will have an advantage in the testing because McAfee invented a virus simulator that will be used as a testing mechanism.

Highland is getting money from his magazine's British-based publisher, Elsevier Advanced Technology Publications, for his own review of anti-viral software. But Highland said he is not interested in operating an ongoing software review board.

For all the controversy over anti-viral products, computer security experts agree that the best protection is prevention. That means being extremely careful about dangerous practices - such as using software that is offered free on computer bulletin boards.

In December, a virus containing a phantom Christmas message took only two hours to spread throughout a network used by International Business Machines Corp. and universities worldwide. The virus rifled through each computer user's computer address file, then sent its message to each of these computer users like a computerized chain letter.

In January, Hebrew University in Jerusalem said a virus had invaded its computer system and other computers in Israel. Termed the "Black Friday" virus, the saboteur threatened to wipe out files on Friday the 13th of May. But an antidote program was devised.

The most prevalent computer bug is the Pakistani Brain virus, so called because it originated in Pakistan. It doesn't destroy files but substantially slows down computers.