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Truth about computer security hysteria
Truth About Computer Security Hysteria

Rob Rosenberger

A virus is only as important as its name

Rob Rosenberger, Vmyths co-founder
Wednesday, 16 June 1999

THIS WILD QUOTE comes from a Reuters newswire dated 27 May:

The severe Chernobyl virus disabled an estimated 240,000 PCs in South Korea alone when it hit April 26. Although the virus — which wipes out data and hard drives and can even prevent a computer from working at all — is set to go off the 26th of each month, April's version was particularly harsh. That's because this past April 26th was the anniversary of the Soviet nuclear power plant accident, one of technology's worst disasters and the world's worst-ever atomic accident.

Reporters love to write about viruses named for famous people or events. Anti­virus firms will rename a virus months after the fact just to satisfy the media's fetish for hysteria.

So! The destructive power of a computer virus increases if it strikes on the anniversary of an important event. Using Reuters' logic, we can predict a bigger catastrophe next year on the anniversary of the Chernobyl computer virus attack. By definition, disasters accumulate.

This faux pas gives me a chance to discuss the psychological impact of a virus moniker. Reporters love to write about viruses named for famous people or events. Something like Michelangelo or Chernobyl gives them a reason to include pointless trivia. "The Lady Di virus is named after Diana, Princess of Wales, who died tragically when paparazzi blah blah blah..." It helps satisfy the media's fetish for hysteria.

Antivirus firms know what reporters want. They recently renamed a virus months after the fact because it triggers on the anniversary of the world's worst nuclear disaster. The worst disaster on land, anyway. (They might call a virus Thresher if it triggers on 10 April.)

Virus writers use all sorts of egotistical trigger criteria and they seldom explain what motivates them. Michelangelo's author probably picked his birthday and only later learned he shares it with the renowned artist. So, let's suppose a new virus wreaks havoc on 4 October. Let's further suppose the author inserts a telltale comment: "goes off on Greg Dimford's birthday because he gave me an F in gym class."

Would we call it the Greg Dimford virus? Would we label it the Report Card virus? No! Smart antivirus firms would call it the Guns & Moses virus because it triggers (no pun intended) on Charlton Heston's birthday. They might also dub it Batgirl or, better yet, Clueless because it triggers on Alicia Silverstone's birthday.

"The Lady Di virus is named after Diana, Prin­cess of Wales, who died tragi­cally when papa­razzi blah blah blah..."

[Credit where due: I swiped "Guns & Moses" from an obscure magazine called The Door.]

Now suppose a virus released before the Littleton massacre strikes next year on the anniversary of Littleton. Antivirus firms already renamed one virus for publicity purposes....