In computer disease, there is no Edward Jenner

Lessons from the Laboratory

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SecurityFocus logo Medical science's eradication of smallpox was easy compared to the Internet's efforts against nasty computer viruses. Here's why.

Comparisons between computer viruses and their biological namesake constitute a pillar of almost mystical lore, a foundation of the modern anti-virus industry. One of the first books to enjoy mass circulation on the subject was entitled "Computer Viruses -- A High Tech Disease," penned by an unsuccessful anti-virus developer who didn't do his professional reputation any favors by also writing the things.

The metaphor has enabled a simplified public understanding of the problem posed by computer viruses and lent a useful naming convention to anti-virus programs like FluShot, PCRx, PC-Cillin and Disinfectant. But the comparison, while helpful to a point, has proven inadequate in inspiring technical solutions. While every warm-blooded living thing has an immune system for fighting invaders, and science shows itself capable of regularly fashioning some viral cures that stick, silicon immunology -- despite outbursts of unwarranted ebullience -- remains only awkwardly workable.

Smallpox, for instance, illustrates some woeful paradoxes between the wars against infectious and electronic disease.

Faced with one of the great viral scourges of pre-modern time, the human race was fortunate to have Edward Jenner. At the end of the 1700s, Jenner realized that people who had contracted cowpox, or "vaccinia," didn't get smallpox. By "immunizing" them with scrapings from a vaccinia sore they could be protected against much worse at the hands of the variola virus. Using the Jenner inoculation and an aggressive search and containment strategy, the World Health Organization eliminated smallpox worldwide.

Fast forwarding to the present, Jenner's vaccine is still with us. In identical form it's being administered to soldiers and medical workers, a coterie to be expanded to everyone later this year simply because of a theoretical terrorist threat posed by the now extinct disease.

Malicious Life

In computer disease, there is no Edward Jenner. Pressed hard for a name one might come up with John McAfee. While not a contributor of any great leap in innovation or whiz-bang immunizing code, McAfee's business gave a simple mass "inoculation" of computers against malicious software a start and popularized a technology that has remained unchanged. Everyone else, no matter how dedicated or bright, can now only hope to be the guy distributing electronic condoms at the door to the net, the fellow cooking up the algorithmic cough drop for the sickness of the minute.

While the smallpox vaccine has stood unmeddled with for over two hundred years, even the soundest cures for computer viruses are immediately set upon by people dedicated to challenging them with action that ranges from sophisticated code attacks to relentless idiotic spite.

For an example of the latter, consider that no matter how antique a computer virus, it can never be deleted from a scanning collection because of the possibility that some tomfool in the virus-writing world might discover the lapse and sic it on a PC somewhere.

A few years ago, an anti-virus expert underlined this dilemma by telling an audience at a conference that the Lehigh virus -- old and obsolete by 1995 -- remained in scanners because some jackass put it on public library computers in the Philippines every year.

At this juncture, unfortunately, the saga of the smallpox virus does take on some of the aspects of behavior associated with the spread of computer viruses -- but not in any way that suggests useful trains of thought or good endings.

The only smallpox samples in existence were slated for destruction until fear took hold that Russian scientists, acting just like computer virus-writers are now expected to behave, passed out virus samples to other bad actors. This has rewarded all with a uniquely manmade quandary in which a disease, though thoroughly eradicated, is still thought to be ripe for malicious reinvigoration.

A fanciful exercise is to flip this coin and sweat over where we would all be if computer virus-writers had real pathogens in their hands, or how many are going into the biological sciences because of curiosities lit during the creation of malicious software. So, when did you first notice that weeping rash?

Finally, consider one last critical difference between artificial malicious life and the real thing -- complexity. In the detail lies salvation because if smallpox were as simple as Klez there would be sixty strains of it and more on the way for no other reason than because it could be done.

© SecurityFocus Online

George Smith is Editor-at-Large for VMYTHS and founder of the Crypt Newsletter.

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