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A Virus in Info-Space: the open network and its enemies

Tony Sampson
M/C: A Journal of Media and Culture, Volume 7, Issue 3, July 2004
ISSN 1441-2616
July 2004

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'We are faced today with an entire system of communication technology which is the perfect medium to host and transfer the very programs designed to destroy the functionality of the system.' (IBM Researcher: Sarah Gordon, 1995)

1 Despite renewed interest in open source code, the openness of the information space is nothing new in terms of the free flow of information. The transitive and nonlinear configuration of data flow has ceaselessly facilitated the sharing of code. The openness of the info-space encourages a free distribution model, which has become central to numerous developments through the abundant supply of freeware, shareware and source code. Key moments in open source history include the release in 1998 of Netscape's Communicator source code, a clear attempt to stimulate browser development. More recently in February 2004 the 'partial leaking' of Microsoft Windows 2000 and NT 4.0 source code demonstrated the often-hostile disposition of open culture and the potential threat it poses to existing corporate business models. However, the leading exponents of the open source ethic predate these events by more than a decade. As an extension of the hacker, the virus writer has managed, since the 1980s, to bend the shape of info-space beyond recognition. By freely spreading viruses, worms and hacker programs across the globe, virus writers have provided researchers with a remarkable set of digital footprints to follow.

2 The virus has, as IBM researcher Sarah Gordon points out, exposed the info-space as a 'perfect medium' rife for malicious viral infection. This paper argues that viral technologies can hold info-space hostage to the uncertain undercurrents of information itself. As such, despite mercantile efforts to capture the spirit of openness, the info-space finds itself frequently in a state far-from-equilibrium. It is open to often-unmanageable viral fluctuations, which produce levels of spontaneity, uncertainty and emergent order. So while corporations look to capture the perpetual, flexible and friction-free income streams from centralised information flows, viral code acts as an anarchic, acentred Deleuzian rhizome. It thrives on the openness of info-space, producing a paradoxical counterpoint to a corporatised information society and its attempt to steer the info-machine.

The Virus in the Open System

3 Fred Cohen's 1984 doctoral thesis on the computer virus locates three key features of openness that makes viral propagation possible (see Louw and Duffy, 1992 pp. 13-14) and predicts a condition common to everyday user experience of info-space. Firstly, the virus flourishes because of the computer's capacity for information sharing; transitive flows of code between nodes via discs, connected media, network links, user input and software use. In the process of information transfer the 'witting and unwitting' cooperation of users and computers is a necessary determinant of viral infection. Secondly, information flow must be _interpreted._ Before execution computers interpret incoming information as a series of instructions (strings of bits). However, before execution, there is no fundamental distinction between information received, and as such, information has no _meaning until it has been executed. Thus, the interpretation of information does not differentiate between a program and a virus. Thirdly, the alterability or manipulability of the information process allows the virus to modify information. For example, advanced polymorphic viruses avoid detection by using non-significant, or redundant code, to randomly encrypt and decrypt themselves.

4 Cohen concludes that the only defence available to combat viral spread is the 'limited transitivity of information flow'. However, a reduction in flow is contrary to the needs of the system and leads ultimately to the unacceptable limitation of sharing (Cohen, 1991). As Cohen states

5 'To be perfectly secure against viral attacks, a system must protect against incoming information flow, while to be secure against leakage of information a system must protect against outgoing information flow. In order for systems to allow sharing, there must be some information flow. It is therefore the major conclusion of this paper that the goals of sharing in a general purpose multilevel security system may be in such direct opposition to the goals of viral security as to make their reconciliation and coexistence impossible.'

6 Cohen's research does not simply end with the eradication of the virus via the limitation of openness, but instead leads to a contentious idea concerning the benevolent properties of viral computing and the potential legitimacy of 'friendly contagion'. Cohen looks beyond the malevolent enemy of the open network to a benevolent solution. The viral ecosystem is an alternative to Turing-von Neumann capability. Key to this system is a benevolent virus,_ which epitomise the ethic of open culture. Drawing upon a biological analogy, benevolent viral computing _reproduces in order to accomplish its goals; the computing environment evolving_ rather than being 'designed every step of the way' (see Zetter, 2000). The _viral ecosystem_ demonstrates how the spread of viruses can purposely _evolve through the computational space using the shared processing power of all host machines. Information enters the host machine via infection and a translator program alerts the user. The benevolent virus_ passes through the host machine with any additional modifications made by the _infected_ _user.

The End of Empirical Virus Research?

7 Cohen claims that his research into 'friendly contagion' has been thwarted by network administrators and policy makers (See Levy, 1992 in Spiller, 2002) whose 'apparent fear reaction' to early experiments resulted in trying to solve technical problems with policy solutions. However, following a significant increase in malicious viral attacks, with estimated costs to the IT industry of $13 billion in 2001 (Pipkin, 2003 p. 41), research into legitimate viruses has not surprisingly shifted from the centre to the fringes of the computer science community (see Dibbell, 1995)._ _Current reputable and subsequently funded research tends to focus on efforts by the anti-virus community to develop computer hygiene. Nevertheless, malevolent or benevolent viral technology provides researchers with a valuable recourse. The virus draws analysis towards specific questions concerning the nature of information and the culture of openness. What follows is a delineation of a range of approaches, which endeavour to provide some answers.

Virus as a Cultural Metaphor

8 Sean Cubitt (in Dovey, 1996 pp. 31-58) positions the virus as a contradictory cultural element, lodged between the effective management of info-space and the potential for spontaneous transformation. However, distinct from Cohen's aspectual analogy, Cubitt's often-frivolous viral metaphor overflows with political meaning. He replaces the concept of information with a space of representation, which elevates the virus from empirical experience to a linguistic construct of reality. The invasive and contagious properties of the biological parasite are metaphorically transferred to viral technology; the computer virus is thus imbued with an alien otherness. Cubitt's cultural discourse typically reflects humanist fears of being subjected to increasing levels of technological autonomy. The openness of info-space is determined by a managed society aiming to 'provide the grounds for mutation' (p. 46) necessary for profitable production. Yet the virus, as a possible consequence of that desire, becomes a potential opposition to 'ideological formations'. Like Cohen, Cubitt concludes that the virus will always exist if the paths of sharing remain open to information flow. 'Somehow', Cubitt argues, 'the net must be managed in such a way as to be both open and closed. Therefore, openness is obligatory and although, from the point of view of the administrator, it is a recipe for 'anarchy, for chaos, for breakdown, for abjection', the 'closure' of the network, despite eradicating the virus, 'means that no benefits can accrue' (p.55).

Virus as a Bodily Extension

9 From a virus writing perspective it is, arguably, the potential for free movement in the openness of info-space that that motivates the spread of viruses. As one writer infamously stated it is 'the idea of making a program that would travel on its own, and go to places its creator could never go' that inspires the spreading of viruses (see Gordon, 1993). In a defiant stand against the physical limitations of bodily movement from Eastern Europe to the US, the Bulgarian virus writer, the Dark Avenger, contended that 'the American government can stop me from going to the US, but they can't stop my virus'. This McLuhanesque conception of the virus, as a bodily extension (see McLuhan, 1964), is picked up on by Baudrillard in Cool Memories_ _(1990). He considers the computer virus as an 'ultra-modern form of communication which does not distinguish, according to McLuhan, between the information itself and its carrier.' To Baudrillard the prosperous proliferation of the virus is the result of its ability to be both the medium and the message. As such the virus is a pure form of information.

The Virus as Information

10 Like Cohen, Claude Shannon looks to the biological analogy, but argues that we have the potential to learn more about information transmission in artificial and natural systems by looking at difference rather than resemblance (see Campbell, 1982). One of the key aspects of this approach is the concept of redundancy. The theory of information argues that the patterns produced by the transmission of information are likely to travel in an entropic mode, from the unmixed to the mixed – from information to noise. Shannon's concept of redundancy ensures that noise is diminished in a system of communication. Redundancy encodes information so that the receiver can successfully decode the message, holding back the entropic tide.

11 Shannon considers the transmission of messages in the brain as highly redundant since it manages to obtain 'overall reliability using unreliable components' (in Campbell, 1982 p. 191). While computing uses redundancy to encode messages, compared to transmissions of biological information, it is fairly primitive. Unlike the brain, Turing-von-Neumann computation is inflexible and literal minded. In the brain information transmission relies not only on deterministic external input, but also self-directed spontaneity and uncertain electro-chemical pulses. Nevertheless, while Shannon's binary code is constrained to a finite set of syntactic rules, it can produce an infinite number of possibilities. Indeed, the virus makes good use of redundancy to ensure its successful propagation. The polymorphic virus is not simply a chaotic, delinquent noise, but a decidedly redundant form of communication, which uses non-significant code to randomly flip itself over to avoid detection. Viral code thrives on the infinite potential of algorithmic computing; the open, flexible and undecidable grammar of the algorithm allows the virus to spread, infect and evolve. The polymorphic virus can encrypt and decrypt itself so as to avoid anti-viral scanners checking for known viral signatures from the phylum of code known to anti-virus researchers. As such, it is a raw form of Artificial Intelligence, relying on redundant inflexible_ _code programmed to act randomly, ignore or even forget information.

Towards a Concept of Rhizomatic Viral Computation

12 Using the concept of the rhizome Deleuze and Guattari (1987 p. 79) challenge the relation between noise and pattern established in information theory. They suggest that redundancy is not merely a 'limitative condition', but is key to the transmission of the message itself. Measuring up the efficiency of a highly redundant viral transmission against the 'splendour' of the short-term memory of a rhizomatic message, it is possible to draw some conclusions from their intervention. On the surface, the entropic tendency appears to be towards the mixed and the running down of the system's energy. However, entropy is not the answer since information is not energy; it cannot be conserved, it can be created and destroyed. By definition information is something new, something that adds to existing information (see Campbell, 1982 p. 231), yet efficient information transmission creates invariance in a variant environment. In this sense, the pseudo-randomness of viral code, which pre-programs elements of uncertainty and free action into its propagation, challenges the efforts to make information centralised, structured and ordered. It does this by placing redundant noise within its message pattern. The virus readily ruptures the patterned symmetry of info-space and in terms of information produces something new. Viral transmission is pure information as its objective is to replicate itself throughout info-space; it mutates the space as well as itself.

13 In a rhizomatic mode the anarchic virus is without a central agency; it is a profound rejection of all Generals and power centres. Viral infection, like the rhizomatic network, is made up of 'finite networks of automata in which communication runs from any neighbour to any other'. Viral spread flows along non-pre-existent 'channels of communication' (1987 p. 17). Furthermore, while efforts are made to striate the virus using anti-viral techniques, there is growing evidence that viral information not only wants to be free, but is free to do as it likes.

About the Author

Tony Sampson is a Senior Lecturer and Course Tutor in Multimedia & Digital Culture, School of Cultural and Innovation Studies at the University of East London, UK

Email: [email protected]

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