14 October 2003
Good, the Bad and the Infected:
Computer Viruses and their Interpretive Communities
“It will get on all your disks
It will infiltrate your chips
Yes it's Cloner!
It will stick to you like glue
It will modify ram too
Send in the Cloner!” (Slade)
Thus went the rhyme displayed on Apple II floppy disks infected with the Elk Cloner virus, cloning itself onto other disks that were inserted into the computer after the infected disk. The above message would appear “…when you hit reset after your 50th boot of an infected disk” (elk@cloner). It was 1981 when it first appeared, created by CAS freshman Richard Skrenta (Sprengelmeyer). It is considered within some circles the first virus to make it into the wild, supposedly even spreading to Texas A&M (Slade). It never caused any real damage, and only could really cause problems if the person reading it were on DOS 3.1 (elk@cloner). Later, in 1986, the first major widely considered virus infected IBM PCs. Called the “Brain” virus, it was written by two programmer brothers from Pakistan. “Brain” was meant to infect computers running bootleg copies of a program one of the brothers wrote for physicians by putting a copyright notice on the infected disk. Problems did not surface with it until the spring of 1988 though, when one hundred machines at The Providence Journal-Bulletin became infected (Murphy). These viruses are a far cry from today’s malicious attacks and viruses though. There have been over 63,000 viruses on the internet alone, and seemingly every week there is some new virus, worm or attack happening around the world (Mendoza). With all of these viruses and attacks there are users who generally feel that these pieces of code are destructive, those who are not worried about them, and those who create them. In the essay “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One,” Stanley Fish makes the point that people of different areas and cultures sometimes form different opinions and ideas. People from one area may give an action a certain meaning that might be totally opposite of what the other thinks. In the case of viruses, the creators of these viruses have very strong opinions about their work. Those who have an understanding of computers generally dislike this work, and those of little knowledge of computers sometimes have actual fear it. Fish’s point that interpretive communities shape the practices of their culture is important to think about when compared to the world of computer viruses. As the scale and scope in which we use computers broadens in the future it is important for these two groups of creators and spectators to understand each other. In thinking about Fish, the public needs to better understand viruses and give fair judgment in controlling them, but at the same time virus creators need to learn better uses of power. They both look at the creation of viruses in two different ways, and as a result could risk alienating users or creating catastrophic events if understanding is not reached.
The creators of these viruses are usually thought by the public to be the isolated teenager living in his parent’s basement working on his creation to unleash upon the world and show them his power. Surprisingly this stereotype can hold up, but not all the time. Usually when a virus creator is found out they are “almost always young.” Jonathan Wheat, a technology analyst at the National Computer Security Association (NCSA) estimates the typical virus creator is “between 16 and 22 years of age” (Miskell). Jeffrey Parson, 18, of Hopkins, Minnesota, who was charged with a variant of the Blaster worm, pleaded innocent, and said the case was overblown simply to make an example of him (Johnson). In making an example of him, more sophisticated virus creators can get away as their techniques of covering up become more advanced. The creators of these viruses can usually justify their actions through various reasoning, and often do. Creators throw around ideas of free speech and the education of the public in software flaws in order to justify their actions, while many simply have a power complex for it. In creating worms and viruses, programmers often exploit flaws in popular operating systems and programs (namely Microsoft products) in order to gain the largest amount of impact from their creations. The creator of the "AnnaKournikova" e-mail worm, simply known as “OnTheFly,” admitted to releasing the worm that infected thousands of computers at its time of release for fun, and to “prove that people had not learned anything from previous e-mail worms.” He noted “that he never wanted to harm the people who opened the attachment; in fact, the worm doesn't cause any damage to computers -- it merely replicates itself and automatically sends the e-mail to everybody in the user's Outlook address book” (Delio). Virus creators may create for a plethora of reasons, but usually their output is somewhat similar in execution, even if it does or does not cause any real damage.
On the other hand though, there are the “victims” of these attacks and viruses. While there are always new viruses, they usually could take the time to not be infected. Any user of the internet could potentially become a victim of a virus, and this threat creates fear among the general public. This fear coupled with an estimated $65 billion in damage could cause almost anyone to question virus creators motives (Mendoza). Besides the money lost, there are also countless hours spent trying to track down these virus creators, spent prosecuting, and of course cleaning up after them. In many cases people’s lives are at stake through personal businesses or at their place of work. Peggy Howell, who runs an online art gallery and gift shop in Windsor, California was quoted as saying, "If a virus wrecks my computer, it's just as though someone came and destroyed my house. That person should be prosecuted" (Mendoza). Creating viruses is getting easier too, as variants of viruses are created and spread instead of new and different flaws executed every time. “For every cyberpunk interested in hacking into your network, there are many more potential virus-creators. And learning how is getting easier all the time” (Wheat). While it may be easier to do this now, viruses are also getting more complex. With the fear of these viruses and with each new incarnation of one sales of virus software becomes more and more appealing for users to have. But even people looking to combat these viruses can end up causing problems of their own. During the reign of the Blaster worm variants, the Welchia worm was unleashed to try to patch the other variants. In the real world though it caused more problems than it fixed, mucking up network traffic and generally creating more work for IT managers than it should have. Users are forming ideas of what a virus is and can do, thus being carried over into their opinion of technology and it’s problems.
The idea of how viruses should be looked at though is important to think about; because how people interpret our current technology will affect how it will be used in the future. There will always be problems, but in getting people to understand all the problems it will better address what is really wrong and what needs to be fixed. The creators of these viruses may be trying to convince people that there are problems that need fixing in software, but they are also turning people off to technology through fear of viruses. In the grand scheme of things they are actually ending up causing a lot more problems than simply raising awareness. Damage is sometimes done from the work of virus creators, but if there is no threat of viruses then flaws could be allowed to exist and even larger scale viruses and worms could come into existence. The active creation of viruses inside controlled labs provides a healthy way to test flaws and stability of software to further prevent other attacks. The select few people who are caught are often completely vilified instead those who are never caught. Already, people are growing somewhat fearful of viruses and what they can do. When amplified to what they could be like in the future the ideas display purely catastrophic circumstances. There will always be the select few who feel the need to create such problems, but the awareness this creates sometimes helps to protect against them in the future. When put into the context of Stanley Fish’s essay, we recognize actions through their representation in our culture, with the vast majority recognizing viruses as a major problem on the internet. Yet the media in which these people get their information from they almost always turn these virus creators into super-human beings, making it seem that what they are doing is beyond the realm of any normal human being. In the case of such individuals as Jeffrey Parson, he simply created a variant of already existent virus, and now faces up to ten years in prison (Johnson). People think that by making an example of him they are helping to stop all these viruses, but he is just one person out of the many who has released one of the known 63,000 viruses (Delio). The real people to worry about are those who have never been caught. The users of the internet though do not appreciate the work that these virus creators do, sometimes not understanding their actions, or simply wishing to make an example of one, while not being balanced towards the rest. But even people trying to fix virus problems with a virus can cause problems of their as shown in the Welchia worm. This group of people trying to fix a problem ended up causing even more, making the groups interpretation of each other even stranger.
The idea of different groups interpreting the same thing can be seen clearly in Stanley Fish’s essay. When brought into a broader scope though there are countless actions and ideas interpreted differently. In this age of the internet and computers, it is obvious their use will be continued in the future, and viruses have grown to be a part of this. Currently, viruses are beginning to control the fears people have of computers. Fish made the point that different communities think of things in different ways depending on culture. If only a select few people are punished for the crimes of all then only the weak will be caught and the elite will continue to thrive. Yet if nothing is done flaws will continue to be exploited and viruses will continue to become more powerful. These two groups of people, the creators and the users may have different opinions on viruses, but the result is the same, and the use of technology will in the end be affected by how it is dealt with today.
Delio, Michelle. "Anna Worm Writer Tells All." Wired.com 13 Feb. 2001. 12 Oct. 2003 <http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,41782,00.html>.
elk@cloner. "Re: A (long) story about an (old) Apple ][ virus." Online posting. 2 Apr. 1990. alt.hackers. 12 Oct. 2003 <http://www.skrenta.com/cloner/clone-post.html>.
Johnson, Gene. "Teen charged in Internet worm attack pleads innocent." Yahoo! News 18 Sept. 2003. 12 Oct. 2003 <http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/businesstechnology/2001733751_webblaster17.html>.
Mendoza, Martha. "Writers and senders of computer viruses rarely face jail ." The Daily Ardmoreite 31 Aug. 2003. 12 Oct. 2003 <http://www.ardmoreite.com/stories/083103/new_writers.shtml>.
Miskell, William. "Computer Viruses — Fact And Fantasy." The Business Monthly Oct. 1997. 12 Oct. 2003 <http://www.bizmonthly.com/10_1997/miskell.html>.
Murphy, Dave. "Brain Virus is 15." ITrain (2001). 12 Oct. 2003 <http://itrain.org/itinfo/2001/it010130.html>.
Slade, Robert M., and Dr. Alan Solomon. Virus History. 2002. 12 Oct. 2003 <http://www.cknow.com/vtutor/vthistory.htm>.
Sprengelmeyer, Mike. "NU frosh programs cloning achievement." The Daily Northwestern 12 Nov. 1985. 12 Oct. 2003 <http://www.skrenta.com/cloner/nu-clone.html>.