Portraits of Evil IT

The Virus Underground

    The virus community attracts a lot of smart but alienated young men, libertarian types who are often flummoxed by the social nuances of life. While the virus scene isn't dominated by those characters, it certainly has its share -- and they are often the ones with a genuine chip on their shoulder.
    ''I am a social reject,'' admitted Vorgon (as he called himself), a virus writer in Toronto with whom I exchanged messages one night in an online chat channel. He studied computer science in college but couldn't find a computer job after sending out 400 résumés. With ''no friends, not much family'' and no girlfriend for years, he became depressed. He attempted suicide, he said, by walking out one frigid winter night into a nearby forest for five hours with no jacket on. But then he got into the virus-writing scene and found a community. ''I met a lot of cool people who were interested in what I did,'' he wrote. ''They made me feel good again.'' He called his first virus FirstBorn to celebrate his new identity. Later, he saw that one of his worms had been written up as an alert on an antivirus site, and it thrilled him. ''Kinda like when I got my first girlfriend,'' he wrote. ''I was god for a couple days.'' He began work on another worm, trying to recapture the feeling. ''I spent three months working on it just so I could have those couple of days of godliness.''

"Vorgon is still angry..."

    Vorgon is still angry about life. His next worm, he wrote, will try to specifically target the people who wouldn't hire him. It will have a ''spidering'' engine that crawls Web-page links, trying to find likely e-mail addresses for human-resource managers, ''like careers@microsoft.com, for example.''

Then it will send them a fake résumé infected with the worm. (He hasn't yet decided on a payload, and he hasn't ruled out a destructive one.) ''This is a revenge worm,'' he explained -- for ''not hiring me, and hiring some loser that is not even half the programmer I am.''

"...expressed sympathy
for Osama bin Laden."

    These moral nuances fall apart in the case of virus authors who are themselves willing to release worms into the wild. They're more rare, for obvious reasons. Usually they are overseas, in countries where the police are less concerned with software crimes. One such author is Melhacker, a young man who reportedly lives in Malaysia and has expressed sympathy for Osama bin Laden. Antivirus companies have linked him to the development of several worms, including one that claims to come from the ''Qaeda network.'' Before the Iraq war, he told a computer magazine that he would release a virulent worm if the United States attacked Iraq -- a threat that proved hollow. When I e-mailed him, he described his favorite type of worm payload: ''Stolen information from other people.'' He won't say which of his viruses he has himself spread and refuses to comment on his connection to the Qaeda worm. But in December on Indovirus.net, a discussion board for virus writers, Melhacker urged other writers to ''try to make it in the wild'' and to release their viruses in cybercafes, presumably to avoid detection. He also told them to stop sending in their work to antivirus companies.

The above is excerpted from " The Virus Underground",
by Clive Thompson, The New York Times - Sunday, February 8, 2004.