A virtual virus which can cause physical breakdown

The writer of Mydoom probably sees himself as a brave battler against corporate tyranny. George Pitcher just hopes he doesn’t prove too inspirational to al-Qaida

I am accustomed, I’m afraid, to receiving e-mails promising to enhance the size of various parts of my body, from my lips to my nether regions. They make a diverting change to messages from generous-hearted Nigerians, offering to deposit millions of dollars in my bank account if I would assist in the transfer of their dead clients’ funds – oh, and if I would just send them the necessary details of my bank account.

I have to say that I probably receive more than my fair share of the penile-expansion variety, as a colleague who shares my domain name works in healthcare and needs to make related inquiries. Occupational hazard, I suppose.

But over the past week or so, in common with the rest of the e-universe, I have felt like J-Lo had she made her e-mail address public. Seemingly every loony on the planet has been in touch, sending greetings and attachments that I dare not open.

Like the progenitor of some ancient curse, those of us in business hesitate to speak its name, for fear that it will summon up fresh and unspeakable horrors. But here goes – it’s the Mydoom virus and, at the time of writing, it has peaked at some 30 per cent of all global e-mail traffic. It has even delayed the transmission of this column.

Mydoom, sometimes called Novarg or Shimgapi (or simply Bloodycomputer), is a weapon deployed in a war between what is called the open-source community and a Utah-based software company, SCO. Once it has infected a computer, the virus proceeds to make repeated requests to access SCO’s Web page. Owing to the huge numbers of computers infected, SCO’s servers were soon overwhelmed: by Monday, the company had been forced to withdraw its URL and set up a temporary website.

We are the collateral casualties. SCO claims that the Linux operating system uses codes that it owns and that computer manufacturers that use it are purloining SCO’s intellectual property. SCO is consequently in litigation with computer companies IBM, Red Hat and Novell, with a view to securing a licensing fee for Linux.

Understand? No, neither do I. But then I don’t understand why we went to war with Iraq and I still have an opinion on the consequences. What I do understand, along with everyone who does business using the internet (which must be practically everyone who does business) is that the author of Mydoom has significantly slowed the pace of the world economy over the past couple of weeks.

The Mydoom worm wriggles into your e-mail address book and dispatches messages to all your contacts, clogging and crashing the system. It’s like a massive pyramid-selling scheme, without the inconvenience of actually having to buy anything. It is also, if I may be po-faced for a moment, an act of corporate terrorism.

And that is where our attention should be focused, because the potential is terrifying. The software world is taking it sufficiently seriously to offer handsome rewards for the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator. Microsoft – itself targeted by a variant of Mydoom – and SCO have offered a bounty of $250,000 (&£137,000) each, in the hope that the geek community will shop the anorak behind this fiendish virus.

It’s a safe bet that whoever it is can be described as an open-source sympathiser – in short, someone who believes in a free and unaccountable market in everyone’s intellectual property. I suspect that he sees himself (why am I so sure it’s not a woman?) as some kind of freedom-fighting genius, a kind of cross between Che Guevara and Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

That’s a psychological profile to be feared. But the internet world seems happier to stick with the idea of a mischievous schoolboy, probably with a skin condition, pebble-specs and buck-teeth, who needs his bottom smacked.

A message posted on a site called Slashdot captures the mood: “This is someone who just wants to feel important and who thinks that by [attacking] SCO everyone will call him a hero. Well, you stupid ignorant bastard, if you’re reading this… no one admires you… anyone who wants to see SCO suffer for the wrongs they have done should unequivocally condemn such acts of terrorism. SCO will be broken by the weight of justice and right, not by mindless thugware.”

Whatever the unfortunate parentage of the person at whom this is aimed, stupid and ignorant he is not. He may well be Mr Nerdy-No-Mates, but it’s that psychological profile that fascinates and frightens me. He feels that he is sufficiently justified in his cause unilaterally to damage Western commerce, whatever the consequences for the innocent if they are necessary to achieve his ends.

Ring any bells? This is not a million miles from the psychology of anti-capitalist fanatics, for whom the ends justify any kind of means. You don’t have to be an over-excitable doom-monger to see that the Mydoom caper could migrate quite easily to the campaigns of extreme animal-rights campaigners, eco-warriors and those who parade anti-capitalism causes under a class-war banner.

Even more chillingly, those who would hijack airliners and fly them into Western seats of government and commerce may conclude that it’s easier to recruit e-mail virus designers than suicidal terrorists. Ultimately, it may even be more effective to do so – airline terrorism may engender fear and generate publicity, but it doesn’t bring Western capitalism to its knees.

Computer terrorism could do so. We can only hope that those who seek to defeat terrorism by grounding British Airways flights to Washington are defending cyberspace with the same vigour that they defend their airspace.

Or are they simply leaving it to the likes of Microsoft to offer bounties to defend their markets?

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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