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Establishing ethics in the computer virus arena

Paul Ferguson
September 1992

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Abstract

The introduction of the computer into our already complex arsenal of tools has opened a door to a world in which the limits are seemingly boundless. The possibilities of electronic information and data exchange alone are enough to boggle the mind. However, with the computer's acceptance and its growing implementation, a debate has arisen concerning the manner in which it is being utilized.

Today, we have a virtual stone wall separating two basic trains of thought. On one hand, there are those who wish to make all computer information and resources publicly available, regardless of impact or damage afforded to unwitting users. On the other hand, we have computer professionals, advocates and users who think potentially damaging information should be more effectively managed and controlled, disallowing damaging code to escape into the public domain.

The grassroots movement of computer ethics

Perhaps the birthplace of computer ethics was the at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The addition of a discarded Lincoln Labs TX-0 in 1958 created a more personal and casual brotherhood in the computing environment at MIT. It was soon after this machine was introduced that many of the more inquiring minds attending the university became enthralled with it's presence [1]. "There was no one moment when it started to dawn on the TX-0 hackers that by devoting their technical abilities to computing with a devotion rarely seen outside of monasteries they were the vanguard of a daring symbiosis between man and machine", wrote Steven Levy, in his landmark book, "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution". This devotion to the computer led to their version of what they dubbed "The Hacker Ethic". This "ethic" had became an honor code that outlined ground rules for the usage of the computer resources and has survived to this day as the foundation of what is honorable in the computer community. Although it has been twisted and mired in its journey into the 1990's, its inception was sincere and beneficial to those who created it during the early days. Levy outlined five platform values that comprised the Hacker Ethic:

"Access to computers - and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works -- should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!"

As Steven Levy outlines in his book, this was the primary basis for computer hacker values in the early days of computerdom. Hackers, as defined in the above statement, have always felt that whatever environment exists, they should be afforded the freedom to optimize it. Whether it is reprogramming an existing operating system or establishing their own set of behavioral protocols, it is the freedom that they seek to define their own desirable environment.

"All information should be free."

The principle idea is that if you do not know how to obtain the information, how could you benefit or pose a threat to others who may utilize the same resources? The primary ideal that all information should be free has landed many of its advocates in unprecedented litigation. Is it appropriate that anyone has the right to examine your credit report? Or your E-Mail? Or your medical history? These ultimately fall into the category of "information", by this definition.

"Mistrust Authority -- Promote Decentralization."

This is an ethical factor that is still adhered to rather strictly by hacker purists. In its beginnings, authority figures in the computer community were inept or simply did not exist. Most could not afford them the computing freedom they demanded. This problem still exists and unfortunately the boundary between what constitutes an acceptable computer ethic and activities that pose a threat to the computer community is more complex than ever. We have as many or more inept system administrators in the present day computer network world.

"Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race or position."

An ethic that is perhaps one of the least threatening to other computer enthusiasts. It is also one of the most respectable values, considering what the true sense of hacking really is.

"You can create art and beauty on a computer."

The early hackers spent substantial resources and time developing fractals and other display-specific tricks that were indicative of that era. Development and extensive enhancements of the SPACE WAR program on the early PDPs at MIT is legendary.

In the simplest sense, the early computer pioneers were rebels in their own right -- they wanted no one to restrict their ability to get computer time or make necessary enhancements or adjustments to the system as they saw fit. Such is our computer world today, to many who take it very seriously. However, one key factor has been added -- to avoid inflicting damage. In the strictest interpretation, it correlates to never intentionally damaging any information that you access. Or propagating damaging programs into an unsuspecting public domain. A true hacker is someone who thirsts for knowledge and wishes to make the information available to others who may not have the good fortune or skill to acquire it otherwise.

Without getting too in-depth into the development and progress of computers in our environment, we should address what we have experienced in the past few years with computer viruses and how they have affected our domain. The decision that remains concerns our code of ethical and moral computer conduct.

Computer ethics and computer viruses

What impact did computer viruses have on ethics in the computer community? With the explosion of the number of computer viruses, this remains an unanswered question. In the years since viruses first appeared in the MS/PC-DOS computing environment, they have grown in both numbers and complexity at an alarming rate. They have become not only commonplace, but also extremely difficult to defend against. The virus creators have designed, compiled and released encrypting viruses, multipartite viruses, stealth viruses and viruses employing encryption techniques so bizarre that it warrants immediate concern. The scope of the problem has grown to the point where computer users are desperate for answers to their questions and solutions to the computer virus dilemma.

The computer ethics situation at present is as distorted and convoluted as it could have ever been imagined. Some of the more disturbing activities in the virus information channels recently, have been irresponsible postings of source code, DEBUG scripts of live viruses and overall disregard of computer ethics and morals. To complicate matters, virus exchange BBSs have cropped up where viruses and virus source code are freely exchanged. The people who engage in these activities have successfully shown their disregard for the remainder of the computing public. Perhaps these individuals have not given ample thought to the consequences of their actions. By allowing live computer viruses to freely filter into the public domain, they are ultimately responsible for any damage inflicted, either directly or indirectly, due to their negligence or disregard. Perhaps they do not care. In any event, it is time for us to reclaim control of our computing environment and establish a set of guidelines that define what is unacceptable behavior. We should be able to gate the damaging material that is passed amongst those who effectively abuse the privilege. A privilege, mind you, not a right.

Inherent rights vs. acquired privileges

There has evolved the question of where do we draw the line between the free exchange of ideals and information and disallowing damaging code to be freely exchanged to all requesters? Although the line has not been defined, several important factors should be considered. When considering each alternative, the "greater good" syndrome consistently comes into play. And a myriad of questions surface with its contemplation. Who makes these "greater good" decisions, anyway? Is this a case of 1st Amendment rights versus control of damaging or potentially damaging information or code? Can legislation be enacted to absolve system administrators and forum moderators of the burden of making ethical and morality decisions and being inundated with charges of inhibiting someone else's rights?

These questions are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Each question has it's validity and weaknesses. To use particular examples, unfortunate instances of computer virus source code, and even more damaging -- DEBUG scripts, readily able to be reassembled by even the most neophyte computer user, have been posted in the FidoNet public virus conference forums, and even more questionable practices have been witnessed on other publicly accessible networks. To those who posted them, it may have been an innocent act on their part to make the information available to others in a public forum. For whatever reason, posting of code that has the ability to replicate (or even destroy) on an unsuspecting user's system is, in my opinion, inherently wrong. And the assistance in propagating it is equally guilty. Many of the virus authors and couriers hold the belief that what they dabble and propagate is completely legal and beneficial. Actually, they are only half right. There are currently no laws that specifically target computer virus distribution. The legislation that does exist, dates back to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (1986) and is rather outdated. The CFAA does not address certain topics that have become an issue in recent years.

Several bills have been introduced into legislation that would, indeed, have made it a criminal offense to propagate computer viruses in a fashion that would endanger the public. In a recent attempt to enhance the existing law, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Ver.) spearheaded an effort to enact an addendum to the existing CFAA [2]. Language contained within the bill (S 1322) specifically addressed computer abusers; those which intentionally introduce computer viruses or damaging code to systems. The proposed law would have provided an avenue to prosecute those who never gained access to a remote system, in the conventional sense. Misdemeanors would have been punishable by up to one year in prison and a $5,000 fine. Felonies would carry a maximum fine of $250,000 and a prison term of up to five years. The bill was killed and never made it into law.

Are there any measures in place to effectively deal with the distribution of potentially damaging information? Yes and no. Computer professionals around the world have independently established casual associations of virus researchers when it became apparent that the virus problem was something that would not resolve itself. More recently, formal and professional organizations have been formed that deal specifically with computer virus research, user education and antivirus product development. This cannot resolve the overall problem.

Making the tough decisions

Many view virus creators as angst-ridden computer users with an axe to grind. Many see them as rebellious teenagers wishing to leave their graffiti on whatever computer resources they can access. Whatever the reason, a set of moral and ethical standards need to be created that dictate what is unacceptable behavior in the computer community. Underground computer virus creation groups have avowed to continue writing and distributing viruses with disregard. Is this a protected activity under the First Amendment? Or is it just reckless endangerment to the computer community at large? The "greater good" rationale dictates making every effort on our part to protect unsuspecting computer users and formulate a logical method for stemming the flow of damaging code into the public domain. If we sit idly by, the problem will only worsen. We may eventually find ourselves the victims of our own procrastination.

  1. HACKERS - Heroes of the Computer Revolution; Steven Levy; Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984, ISBN 0-385-19195-2
  2. Proposed addendum to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA); Margaret M. Seaborn; Government Computer News, August 5, 1991
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