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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

COMMENTARY: Spreading the Virus

Spreading the Virus

Mark Lacter


You could almost hear the collective groans in offices (including ours) when reports last week surfaced of yet another big computer virus this one dubbed “Goner” and spread, like the others, through e-mail.

It was just a couple of months ago that the Business Journal finally put to rest another high-tech pest, the Nimda worm, that wiped out several of our older machines and badly infected practically everybody else. Now, we’re supposed to be on the lookout for e-mails that say, “When I saw this screen saver, I immediately thought about you” and, of course, the attachment. Since the virus penetrates e-mail address books and then proliferates, the infected message could arrive with a familiar name.

A few suspicious e-mails popped up the other day but nobody opened the attachment. So far we seem to be bug free, although it’s just a matter of time before some creep conjures up a new way to contaminate computers and we’re left with the inconvenience, not to mention the cost, of patching up machines.

Who does this stuff? The experts say that virus writers are typically males in their teens or early 20s but they’re not necessarily the pimply-faced, porn-addicted loners you might expect. Apparently, they run the socioeconomic gamut and they’re motivated by everything from peer pressure to revenge. Some want to make a social-political statement; others are just looking for a technical challenge.

Many, it turns out, haven’t a clue of the destruction they’re causing. “They often feel they don’t have any real-world impact,” Sarah Gordon, who has studied these folks for years, told USA Today. “Young people who put viruses up on the World Wide Web don’t perceive them as their responsibility.”

One other thing: They don’t seem to be afraid of going to jail. And for good reason they almost never do.

David Smith is still waiting to be sentenced after pleading guilty two years ago for writing the infamous Melissa virus so named after a stripper who kept turning away his advances. Who knows whether the real Melissa even owns a computer, but Smith’s indirect retribution cost others plenty up to $100 million by some estimates. If that money were stolen, David Smith would be spending much of the rest of his life behind bars.

But computer crime doesn’t seem to count as real crime. This latest “Goner” virus is receiving scant attention in the press (The New York Times buried a story inside its business pages), and when Nimda was let loose this fall, there was barely a mention because everyone was too focused on the terrorist attacks. Unlike traditional crimes, law enforcement officials rarely comment on computer virus cases. Most information comes from consulting firms and the companies that publish antivirus software.

Now granted, computer viruses are not akin to terrorist attacks nor also car hijackings and bank robberies. Having your computer wiped out is not a life-threatening event. And even owners of smaller businesses must take some responsibility for protecting their turf; not installing virus protection software, for example, is a foolish economy.

All that said, it’s still a crime. It still does big damage. And with the ongoing interconnection of computer systems worldwide, future viruses are likely to be more sophisticated and create even more tumult. Will it take a full-scale worldwide shutdown for law enforcement to decide that more should be done to deter the virus writers like jail time?

Mark Lacter is editor of the Business Journal.

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