Technology

The Commoner's Virus


By George Smith Klez comes ever in the rearward of fashion. Repeatedly dubbed the most

common virus ever in recent reports from on-line newsmongers, it has yet to

break into print in any interesting way.

A box of news clippings near my desk, most taken from the front pages of

daily newspapers, proclaim the arrival of Melissa, Loveletter, Code Red,

Nimda and even Kournikova. However, nothing for Klez or its equally

press-shy older brother, SirCam.

Even the National Infrastructure Protection Center, a usually reliable

source for high impact alarms and panics on wandering malware, was unusually

reticent over this big event in computer virus history. Sure, Klez made the

front page of the NIPC Web site, but it was way down the list, well below

things like the Spida worm which the organization noted was dangerous

because "it copies the password file and the network configuration of the

infected machine and sends the information elsewhere via e-mail." Klez,

too, snatches e-document rubbish off the infected and sends it willy-nilly

around the Net but this lacks the alluring quality inherent in the phrase

"password file."

Even in the most recent issue of NIPC's "Cybernotes" publication, Klez

faired poorly. A sentence or two on it lies buried beneath pages and pages

of errata on software vulnerabilities, patches and bugs that only someone

profoundly mentally ill would consider wading through.

Why so lacking in virus celebrity?

Maybe because Klez simply has no lobbyists -- no one to get in the face of

the media and screech that it's bringing on the collapse of the Net. It has

no one willing to recommend to the National Security Council that the

country ought to be disconnected from the Net as a cleansing precaution, as

did Nimda.

It also has to do with class. Code Red and Nimda struck at system

administrators and those who consider themselves to be guardians of the Net

infrastructure. Klez, on the other hand, is the computer disease of

commoners -- the Net lower middle and under classes. Celebrity viruses

exploit security flaws uncovered by Net security gurus. Unrewarded Klez only

exploits flaws in the minds of the masses -- bugs in the wetware no one has

to uncover.

FIFTEEN MINUTES OF THE MUNDANE. The front page worms lend themselves to academic discussions on the

vulnerability of the Net infrastructure. The powerlessness of current

anti-virus and anti-worm measures figures heavily in these exercises,

specifically the inability to react quickly before the next worm overruns

the world. There is even a name for this non-existent master virus of the

future: the Warhol worm, so dubbed because it is said to have the power to

infect all vulnerable computers worldwide in fifteen minutes.

Klez, SirCam and other persistent mass-mailers, however, only lend

themselves to discussions in computer help forums. In them, the much

put-upon salvage workers don't have the luxury of the academic salon to

indulge in abstract thought about the damn thing. The never-ending arrival

of infected users (or just users who are on the receiving end of the virus

spam) forces them into serial cutting, pasting and reposting of canned

advice on how to find, and maybe even use, free Klez removal software.

Perhaps it is a state of affairs that does not translate well onto the

front page of newspapers.

In any case, the powerlessness of anti-virus measures is not an issue.

Instead, the inability to do anything about the hard cases who always get

Klez and its spinoffs makes the job unending and unappealing.

Knowing this, the enterprising virus-writer could aim to eclipse the Warhol

worm. This would entail scanning for that segment of the population that

fell to Klez, perhaps by using sucker spam. Those who click on some really

brain-dead come-on go on a "to hit" list. Probes could be performed

stealthily and in increments, until a truly monstrous reservoir of potential

targets was accumulated. Then it would be time to fire the virus knowing

full well that since it, like Klez, was infecting the type of user

immaterial to those who watch for Code Reds, Loveletters and Nimdas, it

would fly under the radar of all except the anti-virus software developers.

In honor of the real Warhol, it could be called the Dallesandro worm, after

a B-level actor who hangs around way longer than fifteen minutes, just like

Klez, always reaching a vast ocean of the chronically befuddled, an audience

unlikely to make noise to the minders of the Net infrastructure, the media

or the government.

Please don't be snobs, people. Give the virus its due. Klez for Prez! SecurityFocus Online columnist George Smith is Editor-at-Large for VMYTHS

and founder of the Crypt Newsletter. He has written extensively on viruses,

the genesis of techno-legends and the impact of both on society. His work

has appeared in publications as diverse as the Wall Street Journal, the

Village Voice and the National Academy of Science's Issues in Science &

Technology, among others.


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