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Sterling vs. Virus Writers

Bruce Sterling
Antivirus Online, Volume 2, Issue 1

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I have been asked by the good folks at antivirus online to write a bit about my deep and visceral dislike of computer viruses. I can scarcely restrain my indignation within the narrow compass of a mere thousand words. But it's a worthy cause. Let's give it a try.

I once wrote a nonfiction book called Hacker Crackdown, a work of (some say) pronounced hacker-sympathetic tendencies. I still have those - to an extent. For instance, I rarely panic or scream for air-strikes when I hear that some misguided teenage male has intruded into a computer system. I also have somewhat unorthodox ideas about so-called "intellectual property."

So I'm a civil-lib, freeware, hack-sympathizer. I confess it. But I draw the line at virus people.

People who write viruses

It's not that their depredations scare me. I've never been much impressed by the supposed tremendous hazards of computer viruses. A lot of both virus and anti-virus rhetoric is seriously overblown. Virus hype makes computers seem far more dangerous and intimidating than computers actually are. Virus hype helps to keep the computer-illiterate intimidated and in their place.

Spreading and maintaining the fear of viruses is an evil business at heart. It's bully's work. It's meant to make people flinch from the opportunity in computers, instead of reaching out to grasp it. Virus people take wicked pleasure in this. They enjoy panicking future-shocked grannies and other gullible straight people with their dreadful, mysterious, elite, ninja weapons of digital destruction. The intimidation factor is a major part of the kick for them.

If virus people actually had mysterious ninja weapons of digital destruction, they might be a lot more interesting (in a sickening way). But virus people are dull and banal. If they really had much to offer, they wouldn't be writing viruses in the first place.

I'm no programmer, but I do know some people who are pretty heavy-duty programmers and computer scientists. I never knew any of them to claim that virus writing required world-class programming skills. Obviously, the hassle that viruses create can become a serious hassle. But technically speaking, virus programming isn't much to brag about.

Making viruses can't require creative genius. That's very obvious just from looking at them. Viruses have goofy names, and the guys who write them have goofy handles. What's more, the things they say to their victims are almost always really dumb and puerile.

Sometimes, one hears the darkside-hacker theory that viruses are important weapons of digital guerrilla war. They allow the daring individual to harm the oppressive interests of large organizations. In my opinion, this is an evil lie. The precise opposite is true.

Viruses play strongly to the interests of large, structured, uptight organizations that employ full-time busybody computer security staff. The classic virus victim is a carefree, free-thinking individual. He's some good hearted, naive, birkenstock-wearing soul who is cheerfully swappin' floppies with his pals and downloading freeware. He just scratches his shaggy head when odd pop-up boxes appear on his screen. When his programs crash without warning, he figures maybe the cat ate 'em.

A virus is a malignant itch to the silk-suit guys at Three Initial Corporation. But the poor dweeb at the small or home-office will keep plugging away at his failing clone-box until his hard disk and his backups are totally corrupted. Very likely he'll never even guess what hit him. Viruses work against individuals. Especially the trusting, the generous, and the innocent.

Most people who fool with viruses aren't even programmers. They're antisocial moron kids. They just snag virus code from some fellow idiot and tweak a few lines--commonly putting in their own verbal payload. They do this so that the virus will boast about them--rather than boasting about the depraved individual who composed the wretched thing in the first place. Then they spread it and hold their breath to hear what happens next. I doubt that these guys ever learn much.

When I really stretch my imagination, I can see some reasons to make and spread viruses. Imagine, for instance, being a Bulgarian virus writer. There you are, exquisitely educated in higher math by swarms of boring Marxist professors. After all that suffering, you can't even get a real job. Guys of this ilk can become bitter souls. Since they can't lounge at the digital poolside in Silicon Valley, they are tempted to throw a dead cat in the water. Obviously this is a mean and wicked thing to do, but it makes a certain psychological sense.

But it only makes sense as neurosis. It makes no practical sense. Writing and spreading viruses scarcely even begins to hurt the truly privileged people. Viruses are evil Robin Hoods that curb-stomp the poor while scarcely bothering the rich. Poor places have serious virus depredation--not rich places. The real suffering strikes places like Left Elbow, Kazakhstan, where people are running ancient 8088s chockful of swapped pirateware. These people have got the technical talent, they've even kind of got the machines, and they've got hope for a better life, but their civil society is so screwed up that they're helplessly mired in corruption. They're afflicted by swarms of virus-breeding metalheads. Guys who've got nothing better to do with their lives than to invent ever more elaborate methods of spitting in the soup.

The thing that truly disgusts me about virus writers is their weirdly gratuitous meanness. Virus writers derive so little benefit to themselves from the harm they do to others. Cyberspace is full of crooks and lowlifes-just like real life is. Spammers are on the make. Flamers are nuts and bullies. Credit card thieves steal stuff. Kid-porn people are sick. But virus people are special even in this sordid company. They are in love with doing harm for its own sake. They poison the digital wells and the flowing rivers. They believe that information ought to be poisonous and should hurt other people. Internet people build the networks for the sake of the net, and that's a fine and noble thing. But virus people vandalize computers and nets for the pure nasty love of the wreckage.

When you realize that there are people like this, and that they are bound and determined never to go away, it makes you feel very sad about the human race.

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