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Can Viruses Ever Be Useful?

Harold Thimbleby
Computers & Security, 10 (1991) 111-114
ISSN 0167-4048
October 1991

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Most of the terms used for computer viruses are metaphors: they have a largely medical origin, and are seductive if not literally sexy. The very real worries we have about AIDS, for example, no doubt colour the way we talk about computer viruses. At the extreme, abstractly viruses are clearly just algorithms, and like any other algorithm they are good for some things and not good for others. This article tries to take a dispassionate view of viruses, despite the fact that almost all of the ones we’ve seen so far are malicious. If the views expressed here are as a result contentious, then so be it.

Everyone is going to be affected by current developments in computers, through personal organisers, electronic funds transfers, personal records on smartcards, to communications devices such as fancy telephones. Certainly, computers are getting everywhere, from smart cards to ISDN cards in PCs. In every case, the technology is used for communication and flexibility (or programmability). However, communication and flexibility are the ecological niche of viruses and worms. Is there a tradeof: can some of the benefits be made available without succumbing to the threats? Might some of the benefits outweigh some of the dangers? Despite the obvious disadvantages of viruses now, this article argues that they have - to a limited extent! - a constructive role for the future. Optimistically, I think viruses are going to bring about several changes in computing which will be beneficial. Most people acknowledge that electronic vandalism at least exposes security loopholes and in the long run this is beneficial (unless the company goes bust on the first security breach), but there are other possibilities.

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