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Truth About Computer Security Hysteria

Human viruses vs. computer viruses

Rob Rosenberger, Vmyths co-founder
Saturday, 20 November 1999

CRYPT NEWSLETTER EDITOR George C. Smith preached to the choir of skeptics after BubbleBoy surfaced. He offered a sage comparison between computer viruses and human viruses. I reprint it here with his blessing:

You could contrast this with the way the media and the medical community handle influenza reporting. Influenza kills a noticeable amount of people every year. And every year the CDC spends a great deal of time and effort isolating and characterizing new strains of it so that the yearly influenza vaccine is ready on time.

When it is ready, the media is notified and a number of low key news stories result in which flu is explained and the lay populace is informed about who among them are those most needing of the vaccine — the very young, the old, and those with other health problems that would be complicated by influenza infection.

A blizzard of e-mail and hysterical news does not result even though real influenza viruses are a great deal more of a menace to society than computer viruses. The influenza virus does not result in a windfall of profit-taking and absurd free publicity for the pharmaceutical companies manufacturing the vaccine. They get what they always get for yearly sales of lots of vaccine. And the news is remarkable for the complete lack of hyperbole from pharmaceutical company marketing reps and "lab directors."

Why is this?

One reason is ethics. The medical profession has a strong code of proper conduct with regard to public health issues. Health professionals know they are in a position of great public trust and they know that if they abuse it, sooner or later they will suffer negative career consequences at the hands of their peers.

Well, the anti-virus industry ... res ipso loquitur.

Smith holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry, by the way: he investigated a pathogen (Vibrio vulnificus) for his doctoral thesis. I consider him uniquely qualified to compare human viruses with computer viruses. Smith quickly followed up with another email:

As a reality check, you might contrast the behavior of the anti-virus industry with that of infectious disease specialists with regards to the late summer outbreak of illness in NYC caused by an avian virus.

That foci of infection was very minor and did result in prophylactic spraying for mosquitoes, a vector, in the northeast. Some scientists thought even that was an overreaction. In the media, you did not find any disease specialists or virologists indulging in hype of any sort. They consistently relied only on facts, that the virus was uncommon for NYC but not entirely unexpected (similar viral illnesses occur in very small numbers in different places of the continental US every year), that the numbers of infected were very small, that it could not be transferred from person to person and that in only very rare cases was it fatal. And in those few number of infected cases, it usually produces an unremarkable infection.

The media was almost solely responsible for any hype associated with the story, the worst example of which was an irresponsible insinuation in the New Yorker that the NYC virus could be an example of bio-terrorism. The medical profession declined to play along and, indeed, did a lot to ensure that this type of talk didn't have legs.

The anti-virus industry never acts this way. In fact, we should be quite relieved that people with ethical standards like those exhibited by managers of large anti-virus companies never gravitate to positions of responsibility in public health management.

I need to launch an alt.comp.virus.skeptic newsgroup one of these days.

Smith "got on a roll" as they say. He punched out yet another commentary — complete with a BubbleBoy newswire parody:

If the anti-virus industry were put in charge of managing response to potential human pathogens, we might see something like the following.

Keep in mind that hantavirus does exist and does reside in mice on the Channel Islands. Exposure to it can result in a catastrophic and often fatal illness. There currently is no cure for hantavirus disease. And about a million tourists visit the Channel Islands every year. Many of them immediately return to homes in southern California.

There are warning signs about hantavirus posted on the island and the park rangers notify tourists upon arrival of the risk, which remains uncertain. To date, no incidences of hantavirus-caused disease in humans has been reported in tourists to the Channel Islands.

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) [parody] — Epidemiologists are warning of a dangerous virus, one that could kill you horribly, found on the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, California.

"Hantavirus," apparently named after a remote area in Korea, is the first lethal virus to be found in high concentration off the coast of a heavily populated area of California.

"Hantavirus could be the next evolution in viral disease," said I. Talktoomuch, a spokesperson for Disease Associates, a company that is attempting to manufacture a vaccine for the virus.

"It could basically kill you," said G. Reedy Mann, another Disease Associates expert. "This could be a watershed event in infectious disease."

The hantavirus has been found in mice living on the Channel Islands, a national park area visited by 1 million tourists every year. The mice population has exploded in recent years and numerous tourists recount experiences of mice overrunning their tents after dusk in island campgrounds.

Currently, there is no cure to hantavirus-caused disease. It is often fatal.

G. Reedy Mann said "hanta" was only the tip of the iceberg.

"It is Hell come to dinner, but we also know that something bigger, meaner and nastier is on its way."

Mann said he had informed the Pentagon and Centers for Disease Control had been informed about "hanta" while his company, Disease Associates, feverishly worked on a vaccine for the virus.

No one at the Pentagon would confirm or deny that a plan was being developed to sterilize the Channel Islands with tactical nuclear weapons.

Hmmm. I should launch an alt.comp.virus.skeptic newsgroup one of these days. Smith relinquished his soapbox when the media stopped covering BubbleBoy.

On a humorous note ... Data Fellows "momentarily disabled" their own antivirus protection, when suddenly...!