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Senator ‘Cheesy Chuck’ Schumer phears the virus

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Poor worm, thou art infected! I mean the computer virus, not its target. Its image ripe and diseased with grand fictions, the gravity and nature of the computer virus phenomenon, as far as the public understands it, is now whatever anyone with the microphone says it is.

To wit: "A more technologically sophisticated Timothy McVeigh may, at this moment, be at home developing a virus that could undermine the American economy," declared U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (Democrat, New York) as recently as February.

The destruction of the WTC didn't really undermine the U.S. economy, neither has the "War on Terror," but the lowly computer virus "could."

Why claim such a ridiculous thing? Too much strong drink before lunch? A codependent need for a techno-bogeyman to rail against? Victim of a Beltway culture of exaggeration in which no one pays attention unless the message is delivered draped in hysteria?

I used to strongly favor creeping nincompoopism as sufficient explanation. But having seen the mythos of the computer virus escalate over ten years, it's too glib.
Take, for instance, one of the FBI's first forays into virus discussion in 1996. Well before the National Infrastructure Protection Center opened its doors, the bureau published an allegedly scholarly article on computer crime that discussed viruses. It was, at the time, an unintentionally amusing piece that told of the "Lecture" virus, a malicious popinjay, said to corrupt the hard drive and scold the user for not catching it, and the "SPA" virus, which was alleged to examine programs to determine whether they were properly licensed. If it detected illegally copied software, it dialed 911 and asked for help.

Most infamous of the bunch was the wishy-washy slow infector, the "Clinton" virus -- said to "[eradicate] itself when it [could not] decide which program to infect."

If you worked in the computer security industry at the time and saw the article, it was immediately obvious the FBI authors had been sucked in by a series of jokes. Specifically, the citation was traced to an April Fool's column in a computer magazine, a column taken way too seriously in the FBI's haste to provide something that sounded informed to the law enforcement community.

Once it became publicized, the bureau's gaffe generated much clucking and snide comment on the nature of incompetence. However, there would be no real reason for embarrassment today, when Schumerian claims re the capability of computer viruses are commonplace.

Philosopher's Stone

The senator's press release from February included much terrific copy: "Terrorists can use viruses to shut down commerce ..." and "Frankly, I fear we're on the verge of a digital Armageddon," among others. Although his words were gone with the wind in a day or two, the hyperventilating assessment of the nature of virus danger is constant. The names on the delivering end change, but that's it.

As a political and social practice, it's much like alchemy -- that Middle Age pseudo-chemistry dictated by magical and philosophical associations. In more modern terms, excluding the minor and elementary business of updating anti-virus software, everyone devotes themselves to either winging it or making unusual, sometimes interesting and weird but always wrong, guesses about the nature of future and what should be done about it.

There are many Philosopher's Stones promised to turn lead into gold: Trustworthy Computing, the Govnet, corporate-government information sharing. There is the lip-service search for the elixir of youth: an anti-virus program that's not after-the-fact and which timid corporate America can actually be persuaded to use.

The computer virus itself is the alkahest -- the alchemical universal solvent, the solution for every need. Need to melt the Internet? Call for the alkahest. Are economic losses attributed to poor computer security uncompelling? Dissolve them in the alkahest. Must the irrational claim be transformed into rationality? Mix it with the alkahest!

In 1996, the "Lecture" virus only formatted the hard drive. Loser! No alkahest for "digital Armageddon," it was just an April Fool's joke and an underpowered one at that. (And the happening term for doom was "electronic Pearl Harbor," a far more modest interpretation of Megiddo.) The "SPA" virus was pathetic, too, but not particularly far-fetched. An actual DOS virus, named Raubkopie, chided the user, in German, over the use of pirated software.

Those pulled in by the virus jokes knew none of this then, and it exposed them as rank amateurs. But if anyone of the same vintage remains in the bureau or NIPC and they remember the incident, it must surely be with a bemused, "What was all the fuss about?"

© 2002 SecurityFocus.com, all rights reserved.

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