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Dark Side of the Moon: What Motivates Virus Writers

Markus Salo
F-PROT Professional 2.13 Update Bulletin, Data Fellows Ltd.

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The views expressed in this story may not necessarily reflect the views of Data Fellows Ltd.

Many of us may have wondered what motivates some people to create viruses. At first glance, the act seems completely irrational: there is no money to be gained, and virus writers run the risk of being held liable for the destruction caused by their pets.

Virus writers have their reasons, of course. Few people do anything without a good reason, even less so these sometimes highly intelligent programmers. A good reason need not be a rational one, however. It need not even be conscious. We all do some things just because - let's face it - we feel like it. Revenge and misantrophism aside, why do some of us feel like churning out malicious programs?

In the Interests of Research

Some people, particularly the top-class virus writers, maintain that their interest in viruses is purely scientific. They wish to find out everything there is to know about viruses and their uses. Well and good. The question is, why have they picked viruses as the search subject?

Limited Forums

For somebody interested in programming per se, but without a formal degree and/or inclination to direct his or her talents into some specific field, the world offers lean pickings. Software companies are relatively insular organizations which have trade secrets to protect. Theoretical research into computing usually requires an university degree and a post in some research team. What's left?

Virus groups are virtually the only organized programming forums open to anybody interested. They offer support, programming tips, camaraderie and few limitations. Group members can count on advice from other members, and they are free to pursue any subject that catches their fancy. Since the groups are more or less hobby organizations, members need not fear that somebody will cut off their funding or publishing avenues.

Army of Darkness

Why must such groups be especially virus groups? We haven't seen much in the way of games, utility programs or word processor groups. Even if such groups have been formed, they haven't survived, whereas virus groups have. Virus groups have drive. Virus writing is in itself a powerful cohesive force. It places the programmer outside conventional rules of acceptable behavior. In return for relinquishing a place in ordered society, a virus writer gains the membership of a shadow society, a virus group. That the transition is largely imaginary is not important. It's the image that counts.

The image must, of course, be upheld. Look at all the paraphernalia associated with virus groups and writers. Handles with Dark this and Dark that. Fire and brimstone. Heavy metal citations. Weird bits.

The more sophisticated virus writers will no doubt argue that such things are pure self-irony. After all, no one could take such adolescent foolishness seriously. Indeed? The one thing that tends to characterize virus publications is a dreadful lack of humor. Most of these guys are dead set on their chosen roles. Got you, lamer! Ha-ha.

It must be noted, though, that most secretive societies display similar characteristics. The idea of freemasonry does not strike me as particularly mature, either.

Legalize Pot!

Somewhat out of keeping with their secret-society image, virus groups are trying to gain legitimacy for their activities. This can be partly seen as a response to toughening legislation. These groups definitely do not want to be shut down by governmental agencies. Official harassment might scare away prospective members, too.

The groups have been cleaning up their act by limiting public access to the viruses, polymorphic generators etc. they create. Moreover, many group members almost routinely equip their creations with notes which forbid them to be used for destructive purposes. This, they feel, gives them moral superiority. Legislative anti-virus measures must be seen as censorship. Freedom of expression must be protected at any cost. These claims may well have certain validity. However, as long as the groups keep turning out software which is either potentially or actually harmful, such arguments are either outright hypocritical or at least morally one-sided.

More interesting, though, is what legitimacy would mean to the groups themselves. Virus groups exist to create and distribute viruses and other malicious software. If they stop doing that, or are brought under official control, they lose their reason for existence. A legitimate, official virus group would have very little cohesive force. Who would wish to join? Do these guys know what they are doing to themselves?

Get the Lamers!

There are some talented virus writers outside the established virus groups. It is often among them that the most widely spread and destructive viruses originate.

These people are not in viruses for anything like research. They are out to catch lamers. In this context, a lamer is anybody who hasn't protected his or her system well enough. And why should lamers be caught? Well...why rip wings off a fly...stomp faggots...climb a mountain (because it's there, and you can).

Off the Beaten Path

These people seem to want two things: thrills and reputation. They are not necessarily nerds, as has often been conjectured, but they are obviously not satisfied with their occupation and/or social life. Most of them also seem to be adolescent and male.

It is from this group that terrorists most often recruit, also. Make no mistake: this kind of virus writers can often be very intelligent. They do not create destructive viruses because they lack appreciation of the consequences, but to satisfy emotional needs. The viruses themselves do not really matter. They are just a vehicle for negative self-expression. A means to establish a place in the world. Something to brag about (or something to drop hints of: Data Fellows has received letters in which virus writers deliberately gave clues about their identity).

Fortunately, few of these virus writers persist long in the adolescent stage. Usually they either get seriously interested in viruses and join an established virus group, or find something more profitable to occupy their time.

Romancing the Code

Finally, there are people who do not necessarily know the first thing about assembly language or virus programming. They are into viruses because it's cool. Viruses, polymorphic generators and trojan horses have a certain somber lustre about them. Who knows, maybe some of it will rub off if one hangs around them long enough.

...Just Add Some Water...

This is the target group for virus creation kits, polymorphic generators, documented source code and other goodies that virus groups keep churning out. It does not take very much programming experience to operate a menu-based virus generator, for example. This kind of virus writers tend to be more interested in claiming the title than in actually writing viruses. However, after practicing long enough some of them do graduate into more rarefied spheres.

For this kind of writers, the most fundamental reasons for creating viruses may be the sense of belonging, and of accomplishment. Viruses have also an attractive, outlaw air about them. So does scrawling tags on buildings, for that matter. However, the additional sense of intellectual accomplishment may well give viruses an edge over graffiti.

Stamp Collectors

Some people collect viruses like others do stamps or coins. They are not usually particularly interested in using these viruses for anything. They do not necessarily even understand how their collection items work. Well, how many collectors do? But hey, it's great to have a big collection!

Benefits of Virus Writing

Virus writers often rationalize their work. Some arguments claim that certain viruses can be beneficial, some defend the freedom of expression, still others emphasize new programming techniques to be learned...what nonsense. Viruses, be they of the computer persuasion or otherwise, are basically parasites. About the only thing to be learned from them is how to make better parasites. Useless creatures, really, unless you are working for the military...which is a thing that should not be forgotten, either.

However, computer viruses have had one beneficial side effect: they have made people more security conscious. Viruses are a highly visible threat, but by no means the only one. If the virus threat persuades users and administrators to improve the security of their systems, there may be some justification for the existence of viruses after all. Sort of.

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