Psychology of Computer Viruses:

or

Why It's Safe To Sneeze On Your Computer

...but be sure to wipe your monitor afterwards...

 

Instructions For This Report
Introduction
Discussion Of News Item from Edupage

What Are Computer Viruses?
What Is Their Purpose? Who Creates Them?
How Do They Work? How Are They Spread?
What Are Some Famous Viruses?
What Are Some Virus Myths?
Significance Of Computer Viruses
Reaction To Computer Viruses
Conclusions
Other Computer Virus Information and Resources Links


Introduction

Mr. Akira Sasabe(G7) experienced a virus-related problem and communicated with Dr. James about it by email:

 

Date: Tue, 2 Dec 1997 17:59:32 -1000
From: Akira Sasabe
To: Leon James
Subject: My Report 2

Dr. James,

I decided to retype the whole thing today and I did just about the half of it now, and the information seems to appear all right on my web page. It was really unfortunate since this time I decided to use computers only at Porteus and Moore Hall. I still do not know what was the cause of the virus problem, but I think as long as I stick with one computer, it seems to be OK. I found my "favorite" computer at Porteus and do my best to secure the seat whenever I come in to do the work.

I just hope that I find out the cause of this problem so other people who do not have computers at home will not suffer like me...

* * * * * *

I can relate to Mr. Sasabe's problem on some level. I have not experienced any virus-related problems, but just last week, I was forced to retype a ten-page botany paper because the disk I had saved it on was defective. Whatever the problem, it prevented me from opening the paper off the disk. Whether the problem was virus-related I seriously doubt (I suspect it was a problem with the disk directory), but I still understand the frustration Mr. Sasabe went through.

My experience with computer viruses is thankfully limited. I've seen virus-protection software on a lot of computers, and I've read a lot of horror stories about other people's virus problems. I also read many computer magazines, so I know about the dangers and story behind viruses. However, considering that I've spent at least two hours a day on a computer for the last three years, the fact that I have yet to have any virus problems is remarkable.

Still, I have taken the necessary precautions to make sure I never have to experience virus problems firsthand. My home computer has a virus protection program on it, which became necessary when I started UH, since I run files between it and the computers at the UH labs. The UH labs' computers also have antivirus programs on them, and this has almost ensured a virus-free existence.

My friends also have similar programs on their computers. This is not surprising,I think, because of all the hype surrounding viruses. People have become a little paranoid about losing data because of viruses and have made sure their computers were protected.

Given this, it is no surprise that when I talked to a few of my friends, none of them had experienced any virus problems. One had installed a virus-protection program after a frinend of his had had some problems, but none had personally seen the effects of viruses on their computers.

As for me, I am unconcerned about computer viruses. Why? First of all, all the computers I have ever come into contact with have some sort of antivirus program on them. Second, I mainly use a Macintosh, and the majority of the viruses out there are specific to IBM compatibles. And finally, I have at least a working knowledge of computer viruses- what they are and how they operate, etc., so I'm not afraid or confused by them.


Discussion of News Item from Edupage

DOE ISSUES WARNING ON CRACKER TOOLS The U.S. Department of Energy has issued a bulletin warning that two new computer attack tools, known as Teardrop and Land, are being used maliciously by crackers intent on breaking into computer systems and networks. The software sniffs out vulnerable servers and launches attacks based on the "denial-of-service" strategy that overwhelms servers with bogus messages, blocking out legitimate traffic. "They hit the button and go down to the cinema with their girlfriends," says a senior systems consultant with the Defense Information Systems Agency. "They come back and see that they have looked at 200,000 systems." (TechWeb 24 Dec 97)

 

As much as I disapprove of hacking in to private databases, I kind of admire people who can. I mean, just the thought that you can do it is neat. Of course, if it was my database that was being hacked into, I'd be pretty annoyed.

I think if you're a company and you do have a database that is accessible from the Web in any way, this should send up red flags. Even if the data isn't as important as, say, what the government might keep on their databases, it's still worth protecting. If it were lost and had to be manually re-entered, it would be quite an undertaking. Plus, it would be a hassle that could have been prevented. There are many effective ways of protecting your data, and while some may be expensive, a sense of security and peace of mind is worth any cost.

As for the hackers, well, I tend to think that as long as there are computers, there will be hackers. Forget about trying to get rid of them. All you can do is not make yourself a target.


What are computer viruses?

 

The manual for Disinfectant, a freeware Macintosh virus-protection program, defines a computer virus as "a piece of software which attaches itself to other programs or files."

From my own experience, I know that viruses are simply pieces of software. They do not have minds of their own and cannot "decide" when or where or how to affect a computer. Like a word processing or spreadsheet program, viruses do what they were programmed to do.


What is their purpose? Who creates them?

 

Viruses are definitely not created for the benefit of the computer owner whose machine is infected. They are the work of people with knowledge of computer programming who either want to play a joke, show off their programming skills, or sometimes, just want to have malicious "fun". Some people even make viruses to compete with other programmers, or belong to groups that create viruses.


How do they work? How are they spread?

 

Computer viruses are spread in a number of ways. The easiest way to transmit a virus is to share files with an infected computer. Files that can be downloaded from the Web are also a virus risk. However, these can only infect your computer when you open them; the process of downloading alone does not release them onto your hard drive. Also, email attachments can harbor viruses.

The analogy of these viruses to real, biological viruses is a good one. Like biological viruses, they self-replicate, are small, and cannot survive outside a host. Indirectly or indirectly, they can infect executable computer files as they replicate.

Not all viruses are harmful. Some have the sole purpose of self-replicating. The only really "harmful" thing these kinds of viruses really do is take up memory. Others are so poorly written that they do not execute properly and disrupt the normal functions of the computer.

However, the ones that are destructive are quite dangerous. These can delete files, or even empty out a whole hard drive.


What are some famous viruses?

 

One in particular that I remember hearing about in the recent past is the Michelangelo virus. This virus is activated every March 6, the birthdate of the artist after which it is named. Its main function is to overwrite the hard disk. It can also infect floppy disks and be transmitted by floppy disks.


What are some virus myths?

 

PKZ300, Irina, Good Times, Deeyenda, Ghost, PENPAL GREETINGS!, Make Money Fast, NaughtyRobot, and AOL4FREE are virus hoaxes that have made themselves famous on email. Such messages usually warn recipients to alert as many of their friends as they can by forwarding the message.

These messages only serve to perpetuate this false alarm and annoy other people. If any genuine virus alerts were circulated by email, they would not come directly from friends or family; they would be sent from some kind of official organization or company.

Some people believe that viruses can "decide" to infect your hard drive, or "decide" to delete all your important files. The truth is, viruses can only do what they were programmed to do. If a virus wipes clean your entire disk, it is because that is what it was designed to do.

Some people also do not understand how viruses are transmitted. Certainly, sharing infected files between computers can almost guarantee the chances of your computer becoming infected, but other activities, such as viewing Web pages, reading email, and sending email, do not put you at risk for getting a virus.

These misconceptions about viruses perpetuate, however, mainly because people don't know much about or understand viruses. They see these email messages as being legitimate sources of virus information. And because they genuinely want to warn others about these virus "dangers", they continue to forward these false warnings.

As stated before, if a real virus hazard message ever circulated on email, it would originate from an organization orcompany, not friends or family. Chances are, if it came from a friend or family member, the message is bogus and should be deleted.

However, some email "virus warnings" are actually worth keeping:

 

New 1996 Computer Viruses

BOBBIT VIRUS--Removes a vital part of your hard disc drive then reattaches it. (But that part will never work again.)

PAUL REVERE VIRUS--This revolutionary virus does not horse around. It warns you of impending hard disc attack--once if by Lan, twice if by C/:

POLITICALLY CORRECT VIRUS--Never calls itself a "Virus" but instead refers to itself as an "Electronic Microorganism."

TED TURNER VIRUS--Colorizes your monochrome monitor.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER VIRUS--Terminates and stays resident. It'll be back.

DAN QUAYLE VIRUS --There is sumthing rong wit your komputer, ewe jsut cant figyour out watt!

GOVERNMENT ECONOMIST VIRUS--Nothing works, but all your diagnostic software says everything is fine.

FEDERAL BUREAUCRAT VIRUS--Divides your hard disc into hundreds of little units, each of which does practically nothing, but all of which claim to be the most important part of your computer.

GALLUP VIRUS--Sixty percent of the PCs infected will lose 38 percent of their data 14 percent of the time (plus or minus a 3.5 percent margin or error).

CONGRESSIONAL VIRUS --Runs every program on the hard drive simultaneously but doesn't allow the user to accomplish anything.

AIRLINE VIRUS--You're in Dallas, but your data is in Singapore.

FREUDIAN VIRUS--Your computer becomes obsessed with marrying its own mother board.

PBS VIRUS--Your computer stops every few minutes to ask for money.

KEVORKIAN VIRUS--Helps your computer shut down as an act of mercy.

 

Here's another sample of the useful virus warnings available off email:

 

WARNING, VIRUS ALERT!

If you see a message on the boards with a subject line of "Badtimes," delete it immediately WITHOUT reading it. This is the most dangerous virus yet.

It will re-write your hard drive. Not only that, but it will scramble any disks that are even close to your computer up to 20 feet.

It will recalibrate your refrigerator's coolness setting so all your ice cream melts and milk curdles.

It will demagnetize the strips on all your credit cards, reprogram your ATM access code, screw up the tracking on your VCR and use subspace field harmonics to scratch any CDs you try to play.

It will give your ex-boy/girlfriend your new phone number.

It will program your phone autodial to call only your mother's number.

It is insidious and subtle. It is dangerous and terrifying to behold.

It will mix antifreeze into your fish tank. It will drink all your beer.

It will hide your car keys when you are late for work and interfere with your car radio so that you hear 1940's hits and static while stuck in traffic.

It will give you nightmares about circus midgets.

It will replace your shampoo with Nair and your Nair with Rogaine, all while dating your current boy/girlfriend behind your back and billing their hotel rendezvous to your Visa card.

It will seduce your grandmother. It does not matter if she is dead, such is the power of "Badtimes;" it reaches out beyond the grave to sully those things we hold most dear.

It will rewrite your back-up files, changing all your active verbs to passive tense and incorporating undetectable misspellings which grossly change the interpretation of key sentences.

"Badtimes" will give you Dutch Elm disease.

It will leave the toilet seat up and leave the hairdryer plugged in dangerously close to a full bathtub.

It will wantonly remove the forbidden tags from your mattresses and pillows, and refill your skim milk with whole.

"Badtimes" is an evil virus conceived by evil people. It is also a rather interesting shade of mauve.

These are just a few signs. Be very, very afraid.

PLEASE FORWARD THIS MESSAGE TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW!!!


Significance of Computer Viruses:

 

As stated before, the virus analogy is useful in understanding the basic functions of computer virus. Both are small, are self-replicating, and cannot exist without its host.

Using "intelligent agents" software- programs that seek out and destroy viruses wherever they may lurk- follows this biological virus analogy and is an interesting of tackling the computer virus problem. However, in order to be effective, the software would have to be implemented globally, and would probably have to be updated constantly as new strains of viruses emerged. This raises the question of whether such programs are worth the hassle. Personally, I feel that if computer viruses do follow the biological model, who's to say that these intelligent agents programs won't contribute to the problem? They may help create new strains or worse, somehow make computer viruses "immune" to the intelligent agents.

But is it possible for computer viruses to change at all? Can viruses mutate, or somehow develop the capability to adapt in their funtions? Presently viruses are not able to change their programmed funtion, but what if they could?

I think that this type of virus evolution is definitely possible. As the science of making a computer virus is developed, they can increase in complexity and function. The perfect places for this kind of development to occur are the groups formed by computer hackers and vandal programmers (as one Web source called them). By sharing information, and developing new strains of viruses, they may one day be able to create new kinds of viruses that will have the capability to "decide" to infect the hard drive of computers when they "want" to.

The availability of viruses on the Web is astounding. Not only can you catch a virus without knowing about it, there are sites on the Web where you can actually intentionally download a real virus. (This is possible, since after all, all a virus really is is a piece of software. This makes such sites unusually comparable to other shareware/freeware repositories, where people can download, say, software updates or free games.) The purpose of these sites is to house these viruses for people to study. My guess is that these sites are useful for virus-protection software developers who want to test out their products. However, there are no restrictions on who can download viruses.


Reactions to Computer Viruses:

 

The abundancy of software protection programs on computers today pretty much ensures that very few of us will experience virus problems. Obviously, this is a good thing, but there are some drawbacks. For one thing, because very few of us actually have had virus problems, no one really knows what to expect when a virus infection occurs, what symptoms the computer shows, what to do about it, etc. I think people generally don't know anything about computer viruses. The things we do know have been put in our minds by movies, rumors, absurd email warnings, and the like. This makes us ripe for misconceptions and misinformation.

When people do run into viruses, however, they are likely to overreact. Much of what people know about viruses consists of symptoms and dangers, and very little along the way of solutions and prevention.


Conclusions

 

Future generations may take a look at how viruses have changed since this report was written. It will be interesting to see if the intelligent agents software has been developed and whether viruses have changed in any way, whether they have mutated and have the ability to change and adapt to their environment. Maybe the viruses won't be as much a problem as they are now. Or maybe people will be more informed about viruses and viruses won't be a big deal anymore.

While I haven't made any predictions as to how I think viruses will evolve and how the computing world will change accordingly, I do hope that future generations appreciate the phenomenon of computer viruses and what they mean to the computer industry. The amount of effort that goes into understanding and studying them and destroying them, versus the efforts of those who wish to create and spread them, is amazing. What would computing be like without viruses, or with a virus problem worse than what we have now? What problems would we have in its place? Maybe future generations will know the answers to those questions.


Other Computer Virus Information and Resources Links

 

PC Virus Encyclopedias on the Web

Disinfectant- Download the Macintosh freeware virus-protection software

Symantec- Makers of SAM (Symantec Antivirus for Macintosh) and Norton Antivirus-

Viruses R'nt Us

International Computer and Security Agency

iRiS Software

Dr. Solomon

 

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