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Virus

Virus

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Published by Riccardo Mantelli

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Published by: Riccardo Mantelli on Apr 01, 2008
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09/28/2012

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F
ree software exposes code and illuminatescontext, shedding a wide light on technologiesand extruded economies, rewriting histories andcreating a meaningful culture. In the field of theviral episodes such as the Bliss affair, in which freesoftware rubbed shoulders with the anti-viral industry,exposing hype and deception, prove particularly illuminating.Free software also provides a handy lens with which toview both code and its culture as inherently viral. And of course the GPL as virus is a common theme kicked off byMicrosoft and subsequently embraced by both the FreeSoftware movement and its opponents, yet there canlittle doubt of its concrete viral nature inreproducing a license text file across thousands of software directories and which implicatessubsequent code releases.Though implying damaged nature, with roots inLatin referring to poison and venom, the viral can wellbe viewed as benign in this light - and the evolution of thecomputer virus does show that healthy experiment andthe same prankster spirit that is embedded within thehacker ethic so dear to the free software communitylie at the origins of the computer virus.Such histories need to be teased out and contrastedagainst the tedious contemporary machinations of scriptkiddies and the like unknowingly implicated within vastmachinations set in motion by morphing executables andresulting in escalating security measures eroding the freedoms of the user. After all, DRM and trustedcomputing initiatives can guarantee and manage bothcontent and executable. And it’s worth noting that free software participateslittle, other than on the side of prevention with apps suchas ClamAV, in the spawning mass of viral nature. That’svery much a proprietary affair, which is not to say thatviruses cannot be written to run on GNU/Linux. Examplesexist, yet there can be little doubt that the viral, asobfuscated and self reproducing executable segment,exists in strange relation to open code.
LIFE SHARING
From humble and inauspicious beginnings rooted withinacademic recreation and imaginative fiction, the culture of the computer virus has exploded to embrace hardcorescientific research, forensics, serious networked securityissues and an expanding and highly questionableunderground movement with increasinglyopaque motivations. The symbioticrelationship between the virus detection, andprotection industries and this burgeoning andhighly explosive subculture proves a highlyrewarding area for further study, with bothparties locked in cold war style escalations littleassisted by industry hyperbole. At the same time, viral technologiescould readily be explored andexploited within an open context andunder the heading of a new notion of promiscuous computing. Oneexample within contemporaryaesthetics is the project ‘Life Sharing’ from 0100101110101101.ORG whichopens up all the artist’s machines for  free access. Parallels abound with thetotally open and password free ITS or Incompatible Time Sharing systemwhich pioneer hackers such as RichardStallman used back in the day at MIT.The link to free software is bothhistoric and essential.Computer viruses can readily beviewed in this openly reproductivelight, with contemporary networked fears reflecting nothing more than anage-old recurring panic over promiscuity. It’s now a question of electronics, of the free exchange and flow of information, and it’sinteresting to note that headlinesearches under google for the termpromiscuous reveal no salaciousdetails, rather affording somewhat drycoverage of a mode for wirelessdevices under which the card willreceive and share in all network traffic.The intended recipient, the trustedand known partner, is irrelevant.Promiscuous computing, incommon with efforts such as the GNU/Hurd which attempt to wrestle control from the hands of a privileged andmonolithic kernel, is all about freedom,addressing the segregation of  functionalities at the stacked levels of network, user and code or process.Talk of segmentation in the kernelsource code and within CPU design istalk of segregation. And Robert Sladetraces the roots of the term worm tothe wormhole like debugging traces of rogue programs which had escaped from within their boundaries or partitions. Sacrificing banal functionality in favour of openexperiment are the watchwords of amove towards promiscuous computingwhich recognises that code and kernelpolicy are political matters.
The anti-viral industries are engaged in a battle against the natural. Self reproduction isembedded deep within the technology of computation and by default its history and culture.Martin Howse sieves out the viral seed under both open and closed coding models
The culture of the virus
AGAINST NATURE
The culture of the virus
The viral,as obfuscated and self reproducing executable segment,exists in strange relation to open code 
The culture of the virus
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SOCIAL SOFTWARE
 At a reductive level it would appear that the multi-million pound anti-virusindustry exists solely thanks to theefforts of a rather unhealthy gaggle of rebellious teenagers. If we cancompare virus writing to say taggingit appears as a pretty lucrative paintremoval business. Yet though easilyand perhaps correctly viewed asdigital vandalism, in common withgraffiti, it is also a culture and hasrarely been viewed from such aperspective. Parallelling thecontemporary histrionic rise of scamming, phishing and spammingthe viral also enters economy atanother serious level other than thatof Symantec and co. Writers arebeginning to ply their trade for hardcash. And at the same time cunningtechnology is being replaced byembedded and heftily remote socialengineering. The virus can now beviewed as social software running onthe insecure OS of misinformation. Yet rather than attacking virusauthors from the sheer perspective of supposed and inflicted damages, it’seasy to prove from both technologicaland cultural perspectives that thevirus is as natural to computation as itis to our own bodies and cells. Theviral, by way fo Joseph Von Neumannand cellular automata, is embeddedwithin the history of computation,and within core technologies. Nearlyall computation involves replication,with software copied across media,disk, memory and processor cache. And the compiler is totally implicatedwithin the viral scene. In both humanand machine instances a virus is of course seriously harmful but it doespay to consider the wider context free from hot blooded assumption. Thevirus shares much with other contemporary demons with the war on terrorism presenting another battleagainst an ill specified, largely invisibleand in some cases fictional targetladen with emotion and politics.
AT THE FRONTIER
 Viral authors may well be operatingthrough sheer malice or under corruptand misguided financial influence buttruly the investigation of this magicalreproduction, of the cellular in aparallel world, is an intriguingproposition. We could scarcely critiquea contemporary Von Neumanninvestigating self-reproducingautomata within the vast field of possibilities opened up by the network.For the viral erupts on a vast terrainof property, ownership and thus of boundaries. It questions what itmeans to own hardware, whocontrols software and what happensas soon as we plug into a vastnetwork of unseen possibilities, of corporate control, of spam bots, andof the viral; where the only contactwith the human is through sociallyengineered financial loss. Who pushesthe buttons? Code or user. Who ownsand is responsible for this spawningcode, and where is the boundary of individual hardware marked under anetwork considered by many as onevast machine with scripted web pagesand remote applications paving the first steps for a road into purely viralterritory?The network, executable code andthe viral are all concerned withvisibility. Viruses are by their naturehidden and free software in relation toproperty rights is inextricably unitedwith this domain in a battle of wildlychanging frontiers, of impossibleethics and questionableresponsibilities. It may well be up touser to keep her own machinesecured yet parallels with real worldactivity and physical law are largelyinappropriate and should be left wellat home in some dusty corner of agedand inappropriate metaphor. Thereare no doors being left open andRichard Stallman presents a goodrange of arguments in such a debatearound the core concern of freecomputing. The virus presents a richthematic embracing the historical,cultural, linguistic, and aesthetic,exposing boundaries and privacies,networks, as well as participating inthe exposure offered by crash, andeconomies of productivity and cash.
WORM HOLES
Definitions of, and indeed the sheer difficulty of adequately andscientifically defining, thephenomenon which is well intuited ina matter of seconds, are wellrehearsed elsewhere with the key figure of Fred Cohen presiding over ceremonies. In his seminal paper dating back over twenty years to1984 he defines the term, attributedto Len Adleman and describes howcoders toiled over a “heavily loaded VAX 11/750 system running Unix” for eight hours to produce anexperimental virus, for use as examplewithin a subsequent security seminar. A virus was thus defined as “aprogram that can infect other programs by modifying them toinclude a possibly evolved copy of itself.” And it’s worth noting withreference to freedom and viral naturethat Cohen himself writes that “...prevention of computer viruses maybe infeasible if widespread sharing isdesired...” Eugene Spafford also notesrewarding parallels between the viraland the realm of artificial life.The difference between a wormand a virus, which is interesting todissect with regard to socialengineering and free software, boilsdown to one of distribution, how thesoftware reproduces and thus spreads.Originally pinned down on a sneaker-led divide, with virus in the domain of the floppy and worm on newlyminted net, a worm is now classifiedas a subset of the viral. Yet the maindifference comes down to humanintervention. A virus attaches to aprogram or file, yet cannot spreaduntil the infected file is executed insome manner. By contrast a worm canspread between machines with nohuman agency other than that of itscreator. Worms exist as standalonecreatures with the historic Morrisworm of 1988 as prime example inrelation to a Unix operating system. Yet, it’s also worth noting that theworm term has few negativeconnotations and was first used tobenign effect; software would occupyotherwise idle machines for usefulpurpose. Such research took place inthe early 80s at the important XeroxPalo Alto facility on a closed network. Within the context of a globalnetwork, the power of the worm, toinundate, multiply, spread and thusclog networks, is immense.
 VIRAL NATURE
In contrast, the true virus exists thanksto an unsuspecting and ill informeduser bewildered within a vast realm of hoax and deterministic GUI. Withinsuch a world of fiction and simulationall is to be untrusted. At the sametime, the flattening enacted by thepossibly unknown executable,unknown as to its code and effects,tied to a specific, and again possiblyunknown, architecture defines aregion haunted by the viral; viruseswithout notation whose effects canonly be known at execution time.Thus perhaps the main reason thatnearly all viruses in the wild target the Windows family lies not solely in their popularity nor in the lack of knowledge of users, but rather through the proprietary nature of OSand executables all Windows apps areIn throwing the spotlight on a tight knit of fiction,economics, culture, community and code, Bliss could easilybe regarded within the frame of contemporary aesthetics,which often attempt such feats but rarely succeed. Onedecent example, again prompting panic amongst theuninitiated and amply demonstrating how taboo the topicof the viral, except from the supposedly scientific viewpointof the heatedly anti-viral, is the biennale.py work fake virusdistributed in textual form on T-shirts by hardcore artistgroup 0100101110101101.ORG. With source code makingtextual reference to sexual promiscuity by way of a partyvariable and fornicate function amongst others, biennale.pyneatly wraps up viral issues of responsibility and distribution.It’s enough to mention the words artist and virus in thesame breath to cause the very heat death of unknowingmedia. That biennale.py was largely a hoax, and parallelswith the T-shirt distribution of DeCSS source, make of it aneat conceit. Yet, biennale.py was by no means the first of such viral-occupied artistic pranks. In the eyes of net art critics such asTilman Baumgartel and Florian Cramer, the MacMag virus,itself one of the first to attack a personal computer, pippedit to the post by a good 13 years. MacMag was distributedas a HyperCard file, which when opened installed anextension which would cause the machine to display acheesy new age style message on startup. MacMag wasreproductive, spreading by way of exchanged system disksand the author, or rather commissioner of code, publisher of Montreal-based MacMagmagazine Richard Brandow waseager to claim responsibility. Heclaimed alternately that the valueof the virus lay in its messagepromoting world peace, and that, in thewords of Slade “he wanted to make astatement about piracy and copying of computer programs.” Stallman’sattitude to such issues could easilybe inserted here, alongside hisassertion, repeated within the contextof an early anthology of essays oncomputer viruses, that security is a sickness rather than a cure,MacMag has since been reclaimed as authored inthe pranksterish spirit of Neoism, itself a viral andnihilist movement of shifting intent and techniquerising from the ashes of Dada and situationism. William Burrough’s language as virus, alongside theliterature of the quine extended into the realm of massmedia, stand proud within such a context. And Cramer writes of the virus, considered as acontemporary literature of the net, as a virulent example of the word made flesh within the executable. A word made flesh of explosive power given the sheer size of a globalinfrastructure dependent on the network. It’s high time torethink not only literature but all viral matters in this light.
WORD MADE FLESH
The culture of the virusThe culture of the virus
Perpetual Self Dis/ Infecting Machine.Custom madecomputer infectedwith the virusBiennale.pyBiennale.py source code
The evolution of the computer virus does show that healthy experiment and the same prankster spirit that is embedded within the hacker ethic so dear to the free software community lie at the origins of the computer virus 
 
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viral, potentially. Shareware ready towreak havoc on a specific date. It’s anenvironment under which freshlydownloaded apps need to be x-rayed,scanned, tested and emulated bycompeting anti-viral apps. The viralloves the darkness of impenetrableassembly language, of unknownopcodes, and of proprietary code.Software without source code isinherently viral Yet open systems are not immuneto the spawning virus. The viral isnatural. Shadiness in code is alwayspossible, and the move to obfuscationis a move to the binary. After all whatis an executable if not heavilyobfuscated code? On a side note it’sworth referencing a recentUnderhanded C contest, inspired bythe Obfuscated C affairs, which sets achallenge to write code whichperforms some covert function, yetwhich stands up to close visualscrutiny. And at the same time, most systemsaren’t truly open to their very roots.The realm of the executable lieswithin the physical arena of hardwareafter all. It’s hardly surprising giventhe embedding of copying withinhardware, that the most commoncomputing architecture today is thatdesigned by Von Neumann, a figureobsessed with self-replicating systems. Alongside Stanislaw Ulam, co-inventor of the hydrogen bomb, he is creditedas kicking off cellular automata,building on his work with self reproducing automata comprised of three main components; a universalmachine, universal constructor, andinformation on tape. In 1967 RobertSchrandt talks of fights betweenautomata. The measure of control isslipping. From here we can readilyjump into both Conway’s Game of Life, precursor of other viralexperiments and intellectual exercisessuch as Core Wars, and into the viral field of artificial life, with spawningcellular software embedded in thesandboxes of Tom Ray’s Tierra. Theghost is very much in the machine.
THE JOYRIDE
 At the junction of source code andexecutable lies the compiler; true viraltechnology as identified within UNIXguru Ken Thompson’s seminal 1984paper, entitled Reflections on TrustingTrust. In this Turing Award acceptancespeech, he concisely relates how hemodified the C compiler to insert abackdoor and further to throw hismodifications into any compiler compiled using his modified version.He walks through his elegant quine-led demonstration in just eight pages, yet the technological and culturalimplications are vast and hisconclusion packs in dubious morals.The compiler is a core viraltechnology enabling reproduction byway of execution.The compiler, in bridging to theexecutable, in truly renderingexecutable, is the most vulnerable andmost trusted component. After alleven if we live in a hallowed land of totally open source code, the compiler is the only thing we only need tocompile once, and which can infectall our precious source, or rather binary brethren. The mystery of theexecutable is well exposed here. Allcode is untrustworthy unless self created. At the same time, a compiler can well be considered as a virusunder Cohen’s definition throughbeing self reproducing. Though bythe same definition we could alsoinclude the editor, in conjunctionwith, say, a shell code interpreter. Yet Cohen’s further conclusion,arguing for stronger punishment of virus authors in comparison of suchacts with joyriding and physicalvandalism are open to question withinthe context of ownership in a shiftingdigital economy. Just as those whorefer to piracy and stealing contentrely on a narrow range of metaphorsidentifying these with the purelyphysical, so the field of the viral is notat all free from political bias. As codebecomes more autonomous who canbe blamed for its wayward antics?
 VIRAL CULTURE
It’s readily acknowledged that thevirus was christened within fiction,within stories such as The ShockwaveRider in 1975, which spoke of atapeworm bringing down atotalitarian network, and When Harleywas One in 1972, and indeedoccupies a realm of fiction, the FUD of the anti-viral industries, andsimulation. It’s all about deceit on allsides. The virus was born within theclosed world of simulation, asacademic or hacker exercise; a worldof quines, or self printing programs,of Darwin, expounding competitionbetween self-reproducing programs,at Bell labs in 1971 and of similar Core Wars sessions a decade later. Wecan readily trace the rise of thecomputer virus within commoncomputing culture, as coders soughtto make real the promise of WhenHarley was One, recreating a Creeper program which copied itself acrosshost systems. The anti-viral arms race
Life Sharing -screenshots
The culture of the virus
Contemporary networked fears reflecting nothing more than an age-old recurring panic over promiscuity 

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