Uncle Roger's improper Ganda

Swedish school system let him down

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Opinion The Ganda virus shows why the Internet isn't the best source for reliable war news, and malicious code isn't a good medium for anything, writes SecurityFocus columnist George Smith.

Laugh at the news of poor "Uncle Roger" from Haernoesand, Sweden, the mistreated student/virus-writer rousted by the coppers for creating a virus he thought might get his complaints heard during Gulf War II. "Go USA" was one phrase the virus used as an enticement -- the idea being, perhaps, to exploit the feelings of citizens who might wish to acquire a jingo screen-saver.

Detained by Swedish police last week, Uncle Roger confessed to creating and spreading the virus called Ganda -- said to be clogging a miniscule few thousand computers. Messages left within the virus showed Roger to be overwrought by his experience at the hands of Swedish teachers.

"[Ganda] is a response to eight long years of discrimination," he had scribbled in its code.

However, the news didn't make CNN, Fox, al Jazeera or the New York Times. Uncle Roger miscalculated in his bid for self-replicating publicity, even though Associated Press Sweden reported he had sent his message of protest directly to local newspapers.

For Ganda, Roger might get four years, said authorities -- an inappropriately long punishment for a fellow whose biggest offense is best described as gross idiocy.

If I were to recommend a sentence for the creation and spread of very trivial viruses it would be something humiliating, not prolonged exposure to a general prison population. I've often favored punishing creators of relative non-spreaders like Ganda by making them jump up and down on their computers until the machines are smashed or for half an hour -- whichever takes longer -- with passersby invited to pelt them with cups of soda.

Anyway, the Swedish public school system gadfly joins a very small cadre who have used messages embedded in malicious software to complain of scholastic treachery. Trudging back to the 90's, one could read "Dedicated to the University of Malta -- the worst educational system in the universe, and the destroyer of 5x2 years of human life" in the "Maltese Amoeba" virus.

But in the end, only other virus-writers and anti-virus experts new of Mr. Amoeba's displeasure with the U of M. The virus was a bad medium for propaganda then, and is only slightly better now.

Not Ready for its Closeup

This becomes obvious if you watch shows devoted to retelling tales of computer mayhem. Television producers will readily admit that the PC screen is not compelling -- even when it appears to be attacking you -- and that pointing and clicking, directory displays and websites downloading often make for the most boring and awkward moments in viewing. Viruses don't do videography well.

So I would agree with Uncle Roger that the Swedish school system let him down. It's plain that anyone who would come up with a plan to spread a message with an Iraq war hook via computer virus while almost everyone else was glued to the television has been betrayed by their educators.

Understandably, none of this is of comfort to those felled by Ganda. Stories from the home front indicated that people who normally know better than to open executable attachments were sucker-punched by the virus' invitations while frantically opening e-mail in search of word about family members on the lines.

"[Ganda] screwed up my computer, and now I can't get e-mail or check news sites until my brother comes over to fix it," said one American woman to Wired News.

Not to be insensitive, but some of these claims were hard to believe: a too convenient excuse for those embarrassed by their PC predicaments. However, for those with a sincere gripe, it is time to stand back from the machine.

They will be safe from virus-writers of this type if they accept the Internet's limitations, and realize that traditional news organizations have been far better with information on the war than the net has. One reason is their invulnerability to subversion by malware-loving idlers.

It shames the net and its current corporate development that television is not hackable by computer viruses and the Uncle Rogers of the world.

The U.S. military's Iraqi Freedom "information operations" are a parallel lesson. According to the New York Times, The Pentagon indicated it would electronically jam Iraqi communications and television at the outset of war.

These jamming operations, if they were even undertaken, failed miserably, and electronic warfare was eventually shoved aside in favor of Tomahawks. But even though Iraqi television was interrupted by bombs on the studio, it came back up hours later.

If only networked computers were that tough.

George Smith is Editor-at-Large for VMYTHS and founder of the Crypt Newsletter. He has written extensively on viruses, the genesis of techno-legends and the impact of both on society. His work has appeared in publications as diverse as the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice and the National Academy of Science's Issues in Science & Technology, among others.

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