The People Who Write Viruses

Sometimes I think that it helps to understand a little bit more about the people who perpetrate crimes, in order to be able to avoid being a victim of those crimes. Others of you may just have a morbid curiosity about those who like to hurt other people. Either way, you’ll learn a little more about the people who construct the malicious programs that cause billions of dollars of damage each year.

Why they write ’em

The actual crime of writing and distributing viruses is a crime of anonymity: The perpetrators usually carry out their crimes anonymously, from the safety of their rooms. They expect never to meet their victims face to face — in fact, they rarely know who their victims are.

Virus writers are, sociologically, not much different from taggers who spray cryptic symbols on walls, or even the “unofficial” graffiti artists: they feel (or say they feel) justified in doing their work, and have a wanton disregard for the dignity and property of others. They feel not mere justification, but pride in what they do.

There is an entire counterculture of virus writers, hackers, crackers, and others who compete and try to outdo one another to gain status and respect amongst themselves.

Hackers gather at conventions such as the annual Defcon in Las Vegas. They have “capture the flag” contests — some well publicized, others not. They have clubs with weird names like Cult of the Dead Cow, Cyber Lords, and United Loan Gunmen. Hackers themselves take on equally interesting names like Rain Forest Puppy, Mafiaboy, Sir Dystic, and TeaBag. They even have a couple of magazines, 2600 Magazine and Phrack. You can sometimes find 2600 Magazine in Borders and other large bookstores.

While I personally have little respect for these persons and their values, I do have a healthy respect for the damage that they can inflict on those who do not know how to protect themselves.

Hacker social values (sort of)

I’m not a sociologist or a specialist in human personalities, but I can venture a few guesses about the values and motives of virus writers and those who help get viruses moving into high gear:

  • Not much respect for authority: There’s a difference between respect for high-end hacking skills and respect for social institutions; in effect, virus writers seem to respect only themselves. In practice, this amounts to an utter and complete disregard for laws that define their activities as unlawful. Breaking the law becomes a way to rack up bad-boy status. (I use that “bad-boy” term deliberately because most such hackers are males, and hacking is a machismo, alpha-male activity.)
  •  Little respect for the property of others: An apparent wanton disregard for the information systems that their viruses harm or destroy is shared by virus writers. There’s nothing virtual about the real-world effects of cyber-vandalism, however; it’s still vandalism.
  •  Little regard for the rights of other people: Take, for openers, the right to be left in peace. Virus writers seem willing to run roughshod over anyone else to flout authority and show off their skills, usually by destroying the property of others. If they need to satiate a gluttonous desire to witness the wake of the destruction they visit on others’ property, it boils down to the ultimate in selfishness — the antithesis of the Golden Rule.

I contend, then, that virus writers lack the basic social and moral values and the “well-formed consciousness” that are the hallmarks of civilized modern societies. Adrift from the civilizations that surrounded them, virus writers seek attention not for productive accomplishments, but for sociopathic, destructive gestures.