This article by Blather’s Dave Walsh first appeared in The
Irish Times of Monday, October 29, 2001, as Don’t
mind the memes
The fear of viruses is disproportionate to the potential of any
actual virus, argues Dave Walsh. Any kind of virus, regardless of
its capabilities for chaos and destruction, is a flagship for the
purveyance of fear. Viruses seem to exude an evil sentience as they
weasel their way around your body or your computer. How may of our
doctor’s visits have ended with an unsatisfying diagnosis of an
unspecified “virus”? New biological viruses appear all the time
. . . just like computer viruses.
The scare-mongering of the last year or so would suggest that
computer viruses have taken over the mantle worn by the Y2K bug
until January 1st, 2000. True, viruses muck up computers and networks,
and cost a fortune in downtime. Arguably, virus fear and breathless
rhetoric that accompanies it is disproportionate to the potential
of any actual virus.
If we try to make sense of how the creator of a virus can experience
gratification from his or her actions, we’re left even more scared.
What can these “evil” people want? Prior to September 11th, the
“Code Red” virus had inspired a great deal of rhetorical huffing
and puffing about an imminent Communist-driven cold war/arms race/apocalypse.
This romantic notion has since been surpassed by another “demon”
inside Western society, the terrorist threat and the anthrax panics.
The virus threat, while still visible, is accompanied by fear of
“improper” encryption use. Every new virus is suddenly the work
of a terrorist; anyone who desires privacy seems to have something
But, as if real viruses were not problem enough, we have to deal
with the phenomenon of fake viruses and virus hysteria. Hoaxes can
waste company time and resources, just as real viruses can. The
associated panics, or “memes”, proliferate around the Internet,
infecting the minds of people – instead of computers. Remember the
“Good Times virus” a while ago? It was one of the first hugely successful
mind-viruses, or memes. A chain letter, without attachments, it
apparently crashed mail servers as it bounced around the Internet,
warning people not to read e-mail with their “eyes”, or their computer
would be infected. I kid you not.
A meme is defined by Richard Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene)
as a self-proliferating and replicating idea. Memes are contagious
by nature, spreading from one host brain to the next, through human
communication of any kind – jokes, religions, political leanings
– are all forms of meme. On the Internet, they can have hilarious
results – such as the intense (if brief) domination of our lives
by Mahir Cagri and his “I Kiss You” catch phrase .
Dancing babies, Mexican waves, hairstyles, line-dancing, Father
Ted catch phrases – the sillier ones are always easier to isolate.
A quick tour of antivirus websites illustrates the rise of virus
hoaxes; try visiting www.cyber-sentry.com,
for an eyeful of the viruses that never were. Symantec’s site lists
123 hoaxes, while McAfee has 70. Vmyths.com,
which aims to provide the “truth about computer virus myths and
hoaxes”, lists around 200.
According to Rob Rosenberger, editor of Vmyths.com,
“antivirus firms generally see 200-300 viruses ‘in the wild’ in
any given month. Vmyths generally sees 20-30 . . . You could say
viruses have a 10-to-1 ratio compared to hoaxes.”
“Hoax viruses alerts are big problem for us.” says Ross Cooney,
Technical Director of Cyber
Sentry Ltd. “A significant amount of our time is spent on telephones
trying to pacify scared customers who were sent hoax viruses alerts
by concerned friends.” Conspiracy theoreticians would have us believe
that antivirus companies are behind both the real and fake viruses.
A more sober accusation is that the same companies are merely capitalising
on viruses, both real and imagined.
Symantec recently announced a 46 per cent increase in the sale
of antivirus products during the second quarter of this year. Heightened
virus awareness, however misguided, certainly doesn’t seem to be
doing the antivirus companies any harm.
Rosenberger, while doubting that antivirus companies are in a
conspiracy, feels that “the media has a fetish for juicy virus stories;
the antivirus industry has a fetish for free publicity”.
“There is a conspiracy theorist under every stone,” says Symantec’s
Christina Hansen. “Does the average person believe their doctor
is disseminating influenza just to get more patients? Or the police
train burglars so they have someone to catch?” April Goostree is
unequivocal in her defence of McAfee. “Ridiculous. It would be great
if we could all point to one person or entity and place some blame.
Perhaps everyone would feel better about all these virus and hoax
scares . . . Antivirus companies are here because of viruses, not
the other way around.”
So, if we accept that the antivirus companies do not spread hoaxes,
where do they come from? Are they started maliciously, for fun,
for profit, or do they just happen by accident? According to Rosenberger,
“Very few ‘original’ hoax virus alerts exist. Most of them are just
rip-offs of previous alerts. Some do it as a joke. Others do it
because they want to curb an e-mail chain letter that bugs them.
Occasionally, though, they “happen by accident”. The sulfnbk.exe
urban legend alert is a perfect example of this (the sulfnbk.exe
“virus” piggybacks on another virus, exploiting gullible victims,
as well as their computers).
“Hoaxes generally come in three forms,” says Hansen. “One is a
well-meaning user who believes they have identified a new virus
or characteristic and wishes to alert everyone they know. The second
form is created by those with a sense of humour. These are people
who often create hoaxes believing they are so unbelievable everyone
will realise the hoax is a joke. “Finally, there are the dedicated
‘hoax writers’.” With all this hysteria around, how wary should
we be of the real thing? “We’ve lived with computer viruses since
the mid-1980s,” says Rosenberger. “In all this time, we’ve seen
repeated predictions for the death of computing as we know it. And
every single prediction has failed. So it all comes down to a simple
question – why should we believe the next prediction is correct?
“A hoax alert infects your ‘mind’. No computer virus can do that.
You can clean a computer with antivirus software. I wish we had
the same type of software to clean the minds of gullible users.”
Virus Hoaxes & Realities: www.snopes.com/inboxer/virus
Myths and Rumours, including viruses, concerning the September
11th attacks: www.snopes2.com/rumors/rumors.htm