Salem’s Fire #40: Virii

I was a senior in high school when I wrote my first and only virus. It was a vicious little thing that would wreak havoc on the amount of available memory of the infected TI-85, provided the owner of the calculator was dumb enough to let the thing run. It never made it out of the ?something to do while really bored? phase, and never infected any calculator but mine.

I suspect that several of the viruses plaguing us today had a similar humble start. Someone with too much time to kill was idly toying with lines of wicked code that no one would expect to show up outside that particular circle of friends. A few truly malicious people kept refining those little programs and the widespread, panic inducing computer virus was born.

But then something incredible happened. Actually, several somethings happened, and all of them can only be described as incredible. Microsoft essentially took over the internet, and failed to build into their software anything other than the most basic level of security. That is almost excusable. After all, back in the mid – ?90?s, it probably seemed that internet security was not the most important thing to worry about. However, not content to let one blunder lie, the minds in charge of Redmond then proceeded to have a great deal of difficulty finding any effective method of repairing the damage their Swiss cheese software had created. For instance, the firewall built into Windows XP, though a decent firewall, is turned off out of the box and requires some hunting through varies levels of submenus to find the on switch. As a result, brand new high powered personal computers have become the world?s biggest server farm, dedicated to the replication and distribution of the creative work of anyone with a mind to cause panic a chaos.

But that is old news.

Recently, and at an ever increasing pace, the virus writers seem to have gotten bored making Microsoft?s security experts look bad. After the umpteenth clogging of email servers and several noticeable internet slowdowns, the virus writers must have decided that they had proved their point. Recently, a new virus seems to fall into one of three categories: not for Windows (yes, their have been a very few), take down the internet (usually by denial of service attacks on the internet?s backbone), or political. That?s right, political. Whenever a technology company does something highly unpopular, and persists in that policy, you can bet that within a few months a virus will make the rounds with the purpose of damaging that companies web presence in some way. The most recent case is the virus that planed an assault on the SCO web page. SCO, for those who avoid slashdot or sleep under rocks, is the company that thinks it owns Unix, Linux, and all things related. Apparently, sending out bills and lawsuits to companies using these various softwares has rather upset a large number of people who lawfully and rightfully use or distribute such software. SCO related lawsuits have been falling thicker than snow in a New England blizzard. And, sure enough, SCO was left with a denial of service attack that took their webpages off line for a time. Other recent targets have included Microsoft (of course), and the RIAA.

None of this should come a surprise to most of us, but it is worth consideration. Think for a moment. If a company, such as SCO, suddenly takes a very hostile and inflammatory position that is almost certainly bad for long term business and quite possibly illegal, what is the typical course of action? Boycott? Call the SEC? Petition? Letters to Congress? Letters to stockholders? Requests for affected and powerful firms to file lawsuits or countersuits? Ten years ago, a combination of all these, alongside some favorable press, would probably result in enough pressure on the company that they would back down. In other words, when a company goofed, we the people had a number of tools at our disposal that we could use to encourage that company to change it?s way of thinking. We still have those tools. And we have one more. Blackmail. Terroristic attacks on that company as a method of protesting the policies of that company are now part of the package of public response. A small section of the public is now voting by virus, and a large number of us innocents are being victimized in the process.

Needless to say, this is a bad thing. Perhaps the only thing worse than the blunders of Microsoft, SCO, the RIAA, and other similarly unfortunate companies are the destructive script kiddies who play judge and jury and write a virus to inflict punishment on those who are found guilty. There is no need to fight fire with fire, or bad decisions with bad decisions.

Unfortunately, we live in a world in which no bad decision is lonely for long. Dumb ideas have a way of spawning more dumb ideas. Oddly enough, we also live in a world in which the targets of private outrage are very often companies. Also, we are a highly educated society. Add this up, and it perhaps inevitable that SCO becomes the victim of digital violence.

And maybe, at some level, this is a good thing. The irresponsible ones who might write a virus are not likely to be the people who would lobby congress or mail letters to stockholders anyway. The virus writer is not likely going to be one of the people who could editorialize in such a way as to influence public opinion. No, I think in the political virus we have found the modern equivalent of the pipe bomb and the burning cross: senseless destruction that serves no purpose other than to feed the ego of the destroyer and make a lot of innocent people really, really mad. But at least, so far anyway, it spares lives. Mad innocents beats dead innocents any day of the week.

Disclaimer: Salem?s Fire was written by Luke Blaize during 2002-2004, and hosted by The opinions expressed in these columns are those of the author, and not necessarily those of

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