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Virus writers in the wild

Marcia Wilson
June 2003

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The University of Calgary is getting a lot of attention these days. The school is offering a course on how to write computer viruses and malware.

Story after story has been published in recent days about the pros and cons on the ethics and wisdom of teaching young people how to write malicious code. Chat boards have been alive with reader responses, and in some cases, a little name-calling has erupted. "You're stupid!" "No, you're stupid!" "You're stupider!"

The antivirus software developers, for the most part, are up in arms about the audacity of a university teaching people how to write harmful code. The CEO of Sophos even stated that his company would never hire anyone who had written virus code.

The raging debate seems to be evenly divided between those who are against teaching such skills in school and those who think learning to write the code, contain it and kill it is a valuable skill.

Gigabyte, a 19-year-old woman from Belgium and a somewhat infamous virus writer, wrote what's believed to be the first virus using Microsoft's C# programming language. I had the opportunity to communicate with Gigabyte via e-mail, and here is what she said:

"My opinion on the uni virus writing course is kinda twisted.. To me, it's bad and good at the same time. In short, I think that (looking at it objectively), I have to say the university's doing a 'bad' thing of course. I mean, they may say what they want, but any sane person can see the course WILL attract some potential new virus coders. ... I have to agree it does help to know how a particular type of virus infects a hostfile. ... But to say they really need to learn how to write viruses? Honestly. No. ... Nah, a theoretical introduction of how viruses can infect files, what the infected hostfile looks like then, may be useful, but I don't think learning how to write them will make them good security experts or AVers [someone who works on writing antivirus code]. Looking at things from MY point of view however, me being a VXer [someone who writes virus or malicious code], my opinion totally changes. ... I think this course may actually bring on some new successful virus writers who write more than only VBS and batch scripting crap. More REAL viruses and keep the scene alive. So I think for the pro-virus world, this may be a 'positive' thing. Or it may not, depending on what kind of virus writing they are going to teach ... to the virus 'scene' the whole university course MAY just be a positive thing."

However, no one really needs to go to school to learn how to write malicious code. It's all available for free online. In addition to Gigabyte's Web site, here are some other examples:

I've gathered from a minimal amount of research that it's considered a no-no to provide binaries (executable code) on a public Web site. It seems to be OK to provide written material, explanations and source code, but providing the binaries may get you into trouble.

All of the sites have a prominent disclaimer about the use of the information being the end users' responsibility. Sounds reasonable. What I didn't realize is that virus writing is such a popular hobby around the world.

So, that begs the question: Why not teach students about viruses, how they are written and how to combat them in a controlled environment with a liberal dose of ethics in a university setting? I'm all for it. Take the mystery out of it completely. Do you really think someone who wants to do harm is going to sit in a college class and pay to learn the information? I found enough information to be dangerous in about 15 minutes using the Google search engine.

My opinion doesn't matter. What matters is that all of our combined opinions can be spoken freely. It appears that the antivirus vendors are ganging up on the Calgary, Alberta-based university and refusing to hire any students who graduate from the class. The Anti-Virus Information Exchange Network has posted this letter in opposition as well. The letter states: "It is not necessary and it is not useful to write computer viruses to learn how to protect against them."

On one chat board I visited, a reader suggested that teaching virus writing was like teaching a course on Unsafe Sex 101. I thought that was a great idea. It's like reverse psychology. Take away the mystique, unveil the ugliness, face the reality, and voila, you have something you can deal with. One reader compared the building of the best in virus software (not antivirus software) to building the bigger bomb. I wasn't sure if the reader was for or against it, based on that comment alone. One person, obviously opposed, likened writing viruses to walking through a live minefield. The reader asked, "Why put yourself at such risk?" Some likened computer virus writing to health viruses. You know, like SARS. Others stated that virus writing basically exposed security flaws in various operating systems and applications and that writers were doing the entire free world a service by publishing their results.

I guess I vote for the University of Calgary, even though all of the "official" antivirus companies and organizations are voting against its course. I believe the more information, the better. Don't tell me that the university is going to be responsible for the next destruction of the Internet when people from all over the world who are extremely experienced are working on virus writing as a daily hobby. Let the kids get educated. Trust the university to be responsible.

I have a suggestion for the opponents to the Calgary program. Why not send an engineer from your company to assist the professor in writing a top-flight program and send someone else to make sure the proper security measures are in place? If you are going to whine about it, you need to do something about it. Make a difference.

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