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Truth about computer security hysteria
Truth About Computer Security Hysteria

Never had a lot to lose: Viruses for Fu Manchu

George C. Smith, Ph.D., Editor-at-large
Monday, 2 April 2001

NEWS ITEM: THE Wall Street Journal reports US anti-virus firms giving 300 common viruses from their collections to mainland China for a theoretical song — blandishments concerning access to new markets.

"Sell when you can, you are not for all markets." -- from "As You Like It"

Ah, but your Vmyths.com Editor-at-Large remembers the good ol' days when sub rosa virus collections went overseas for a single Ben Franklin and the promise of three hundred viruses would've resulted in the huckster being laughed out of the "marketplace" as a hopeless fool.

It was late 1992 and PallBearer, a junior high student in eastern Pennsylvania, was selling a floppy disk set of a couple thousand malicious code samples through the Dark Coffin bulletin board system run out of his bedroom. Unsurprisingly, many customers for this unique product were out of country. After all, PallBearer's teenage peers — kids without even sufficient liquidity to purchase pots to urinate in — do not make attractive customers. And even if they had money, why would they buy viruses? Computer viruses have no traction in a high school economy.

But who was Pallbearer's clientele?

There was no way to know with absolute precision but a rough picture did emerge. The common buyers were computer security workers, employees of various government agencies both foreign and domestic — allies and alleged enemies, anti-virus industry free-lance moles and a startling handful of really weird adults obsessed with the acquisition of computer viruses. As I recall, PallBearer made approximately a couple thousand dollars peddling viruses. Not bad for a part-time "business" run by a fourteen-year-old.

Competition was fierce. Rival virus underground sysops sold similar virus grab-bags from northern Virginia, the Gulf Coast in Texas, southern California and other far-flung locales. Effective commerce lasted about a year until new parties emerged to move even larger virus volumes onto compact discs and bring magazine advertising, direct mail solicitation and competitive pricing into the picture. One of the more interesting examples was one in which viruses were advertised alongside digital pornography in a semi-popular magazine devoted to bulletin board system technology. Compact discs of computer viruses, software booby traps and pictures of nekkid wimmen for sale — simply as American as hot dogs, mustard and a bottle of pop.

The "Outlaws of the Wild West" CD, sold by my old publisher, American Eagle, put an exclamation point on the for-profit virus trade. "This fantastic IBM PC compatible compact disc is loaded with everything ... It contains over 5000 live viruses, 12 megabytes of source code and disassemblies, mutation engines and virus creation laboratories ... This is your one-stop source..." read one advertisement for it. Selling for $99.95, it moved a few thousand copies over the course of about two years.

Historians and analysts take note: "Outlaws" contained "over 5000 live viruses" in the middle of the decade. Three hundred to China at the turn of the century is ... to laugh.

The anti-virus industry used to whine bitterly about the willy-nilly sale of virus-loaded compact discs in 1995. Neat how this works, isn't it?

In this more informed context, statements in the Wall Street Journal to the effect that US officials were concerned — "The concept is troubling ... we don't want to promote or encourage ... the dissemination of viruses" said one highly placed apparatchik for the Journal — reveals that, as usual, potential policy-makers are about as unschooled in the subject, technically and historically, as one can be and still be considered to be breathing.

HOWEVER, THE FLIP side of the coin is little different. The idea bandied about in national security circles and aired frequently in the national media that military mandarins of the Yellow Horde are feverishly preparing information warfare plans (of which this is one more prima facie example) to smite the American way of life belongs in a Sax Rohmer "The Insidious Brain of Dr. Fu Manchu"-style novel. In terms of hard intelligence information, the kind that counts as opposed to the kind one leaks to the media, it indicates Chinese leadership is about as stumblebum on the topic as American counterparts, mired back in the cyber-Stone Age in terms of formulating abstract thought in the arena. Ten viruses or ten thousand — it just doesn't matter and hasn't for quite a long time.

Also worth chewing on is the fact that the same anti-virus industry which issues press releases on everything considered even slightly harmful to computing in virus-land published none trumpeting being sort-of secretly squeezed out of a few hundred in return for alleged promises of increased business opportunity. Not the right flavor of news, eh, dudes?

The anti-virus industry used to whine bitterly about the willy-nilly sale of virus-loaded compact discs in 1995. Neat how this works, isn't it?