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How Kids are Creating Viruses That Destroy Your Computer

Have you ever wondered like me, who is creating these terrible viruses that are wreaking havoc with computer systems? The pace of computer virus infections seems to be escalating. If you don't have an up-to-date, installed anti-virus program and a current back-up, you run the risk of losing every piece of information on your hard drive.

You might assume that the blame--and the legal repercussions--for the destruction would land directly at the feet of people who are writing the viruses and that half-million-dollar rewards like Microsoft offered last month for information about the source of the virus would help. But as the police around the globe have cracked down on cybercrime in the past few years, virus writers have become more cautious, or at least more crafty. These days, many elite writers do not spread their works at all. Instead, they ''publish'' them, posting their code on Web sites, often with detailed descriptions of how the program works. Essentially, they leave their viruses lying around for anyone to use.

Invariably, someone does. The people who release the viruses are often anonymous mischief-makers, or ''script kiddies.'' That's a derisive term for aspiring young hackers, usually teenagers or curious college students, who don't yet have the skill to program computers but like to pretend they do. They download the viruses, claim to have written them themselves and then set them free in an attempt to assume the role of a fearsome digital menace. Script kiddies often have only a dim idea of how the code works and little concern for how a digital plague can rage out of control. By so freely sharing their work, the elite virus writers have made it easy for almost anyone to wreak havoc online.

Most of the virus writers live in Europe; there have been very few active in the United States since 9/11, because of fears of prosecution. Interestingly, 99 percent of the virus writers never release their creation on the public. So why write a worm, if you're not going to spread it? Although fear of being caught is a concern for some, most write these programs for the sheer intellectual challenge, the fun of producing something really cool. For the top worm writers, the goal is to make something that's brand-new, never seen before. Replicating an existing virus is lame, the worst of all possible insults.

Fortunately, at this time, a virus cannot kick-start itself; a human needs to be fooled into clicking on it. This turns virus writers into armchair psychologists, always hunting for new tricks to dupe someone into activating a virus. So, a basic preventive solution for anyone would be to NEVER, and I mean NEVER, click on files that are suspicious, even from friends you know. It is far safer to e-mail or call your friend to confirm that the file is authentic and safe to click on.

Worms, in contrast, usually do not require any human intervention to spread. That means they can travel at the breakneck pace of computers themselves. Unlike a virus, a worm generally does not alter or destroy data on a computer. Its danger lies in its speed: when a worm multiplies, it often generates enough traffic to brown out Internet servers, like air-conditioners bringing down the power grid on a hot summer day. The most popular worms today are ''mass mailers,'' which attack a victim's computer, swipe the addresses out of Microsoft Outlook (the world's most common e-mail program) and send a copy of the worm to everyone in the victim's address book. These days, the distinction between worm and virus is breaking down. A worm will carry a virus with it, dropping it onto the victim's hard drive to do its work, then e-mailing itself off to a new target.

The prevalence of hard-drive-destroying viruses has steadily declined to almost zero. Malware authors have learned a lesson that biologists have long known: the best way for a virus to spread is to ensure its host remains alive. Given the pace of virus development, we are probably going to see even nastier criminal attacks in the future. Some academics have predicted the rise of cryptoviruses--malware that invades your computer and encrypts all your files, making them unreadable. The only way to get the data back will be to pay a ransom. The profusion of viruses has even become a national-security issue. Government officials worry that terrorists could easily launch viruses that cripple American telecommunications, sowing confusion in advance of a physical 9/11-style attack.

This NY Times article is an exceptionally long article and is a great testimony, confirming once again, that the NY Times is the best paper in the United States for their investigative journalism. This is likely the best article ever written about the details of how these malicious pieces of software code are created.

New York Times February 8, 2004

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