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Virus Writers: Who Writes This Stuff Anyway?

Scott Dewing
Project A; this article was originally published in Jefferson Monthly magazine

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The room is dark and quiet except for a few glowing monitors, the dull hum of spinning fans and hard-drives, the almost inaudible thumping bass of hard Industrial music leaking out of a pair of headphones, and short bursts of staccato keyboarding accompanied by intermittent mouse clicks. Empty Coke cans and candy wrappers litter a crude desk cobbled together from scrap two-by-fours and a sheet of splintering plywood. It is 2 a.m., and while you are sleeping, this young punk with his fresh tattoos and pimples is nestled within this warm glow and hum, creating the next virus that is going to sweep the Internet and bring large corporations to their knees.

That’s the vision my mind always conjured up when people asked me who writes these terrible viruses that are exponentially growing in number and increasingly spreading throughout the Internet. I’ve been asked the question a lot lately, so I decided to do some research and find out if my assumptions about virus writers were valid. What I discovered during my research was far more disturbing than my initial preconceptions of the young punk madly coding away with a maniacal grin on his face.

Although nobody really knows the true number, it is estimated that there are currently some 56,000 computer viruses in the wild today. The term “in the wild” means that a virus is circulating on the Internet and has been discovered and reported by a valid reporting organization. The first computer virus, “The Internet Worm,” is credited to Robert Tappan Morris. In November of 1988, Morris, then a 23-year-old doctoral student at Cornell University, released his seemingly benign computer virus “experiment” into the wild. Morris’s creation was designed to simply spread itself to as many computers as possible without being detected. The experiment went seriously awry, however, due to a programming error that resulted in computer systems quickly grinding to a halt following infection. The Internet Worm infected approximately 6,200 computer systems and caused an estimated $15.5 million in damages.

Computer viruses have, unfortunately, come a long way in the 14 years since The Internet Worm. In May 2000, the infamous “Love Bug” (a.k.a., “ILOVEYOU”) infected 15 million computer systems and caused at estimated $13.7 billion (yes, that’s “billion”) in damages. The search for its creator(s) was world-wide. Four days after the Love Bug was spreading like digital wildfire throughout the Internet, a dozen police officers raided an apartment in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Manila. The police arrested 27-year-old Reomel Ramones, a student at Manila’s AMA Computer College. Initial investigations traced the release of the Love Bug into the wild back to AMA. There were further arrests and 11 other students brought in for questioning. The investigation began to collapse under the weight of a lack of conclusive evidence and a Philippine legal system that had no laws regarding computer crimes. Computer virus experts, amateur cybersleuths, and anonymous hackers got involved in the ongoing investigation. Some claimed that the AMA students had nothing to do with the Love Bug and that it didn’t originate in Manila, but rather, in Brisbane, Australia. Others claimed that the AMA students were involved, but with the assistance of other virus writers from around the world totaling up to 40 individuals.

The only serious research into the dark world of virus writers was conducted by Sarah Gordon, formerly a research scientist at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center. In one of Gordon’s more recent research papers entitled “Who Writes This Stuff?”, she writes, “Back in the early ‘90s, we were certain that they [virus writers] were depraved young men with chips the size of Manhattan on their shoulders. They wrote viruses to destroy the world, make societal protests, and take the place of the girlfriends they could never have, all while listening to heavy metal in their darkened rooms. These kids were not to be trusted. We all knew that.”

Gordon’s earlier research into the motivations and backgrounds of virus writers concluded that the early virus writers (early 1990s) “were not evil incarnate, but rather adolescents who were basically just like the kids next door. In fact, their ethical development was right on target with that of normal young people.” Gordon’s later research, however, showed other developments in the virus writing demographic that nobody predicted.

“As of late 1996, there are new virus writers taking their [the old virus writers] places,” Gordon states. “But, it is even worse than that. Yes, we have new youngsters filling the empty shoes of those who have aged out, but we also have new types of virus writers. The new types, whom I call ‘The New Age Virus Writers’...are somewhat different than the ethically normal kids we found the first time around. First, there seem to be two newly emergent types. The first seems obsessed with the technical aspects of writing more clever viruses. Unlike many of the early virus writers, this new type does not seem too interested in fame.”

The other type of New Age virus writer, Gordon claims, resides within the walls of corporations and universities. Some are technically proficient end users, others are systems administrators and “legitimate” computer programmers working for software development companies, and yet others are writing virulent code as part of their senior project. In short, virus writing has grown from a hobby to a culture, a world-wide community. The Internet has become both a place of knowledge sharing for seasoned and aspiring virus writers as well as the very method for spreading viruses. Case in point, there are currently more than 100 virus writing “kits” available on the Internet. The number of "point-and-click" steps used to create the Anna Kournikova virus in 2001 with one of these kits was only four.

It is 2 a.m. and I am typing away madly to finish this column and meet my deadline. And as I wrap this up, I am no longer fearful of the pimply punk virus writer. My shallow fear gives way to a deep concern for a world in which the battle lines are increasingly being drawn between those who build and those who destroy. Who writes viruses? Could be anyone.

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