LinuxUser & DeveloperLinuxUser & Developer
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.
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.
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