Solving Security Dilemmas

July 2nd, 2016

It’s interesting to look back on the history of computer viruses as they relate to computers themselves.  The early computer viruses were very interesting and simplistic, however they were a major scourge right away.  Malicious code run rogue.  In an attempt to understand the past history of computer viruses we like to look at different articles discussing the viruses as they were created.

People didn’t know that they had to rely on antivirus and antimalware software – that software was still new.  Things like spyware didn’t even exist, it wasn’t until later that this type of software came into fruition.

However it’s interesting to look at the history of how the fight against computer viruses went down.

It takes only until page 15 for the authors to question the ability of the existing computer security establishment to deal with viruses. They make it easy, in the text that follows, to infer that preventing or curing most computer viruses requires the help of a professional Virus Buster–one from the Computer Virus Industry Association, perhaps. In the chapter on virus prevention products, the authors protest at least enough that they hesitated to include a review of McAfee’s own product. In the end, they tell us, they decided to publish the “impartial assessment” of a member of the National Bulletin Board Society (which McAfee founded).

The book contains some genuinely interesting information. Its two-page checklist of antiviral practices, for example, is complete and concise. But the effect of the useful material is frequently spoiled, not just by the occasional trace of biased reporting, but by an irritating repetitious style of writing and a wide variety of apparent errors, contradictions, and paradoxes. Among these:

* In chapter three, a diagram and associated tect clearly imply that computer viruses can be spread through the sharing of data files, and that a microcomputer virus can spread to a mainframe and damage data stored there. This error will annoy those who know better, and will confuse others when, later in the book, the authors state correctly that neither of these things can happen.

* The worm that was released upon the TCP/IP Internet in November 1988 (as we are told three times in three pages, each time as if it were the first) is consistently referred to as the “InterNet virus.” The incorrect internal capital could have been avoided by checking the literature. And while there is ample room for disagreement about the proper biological analogy for any computer disease, the computing establishment had agreed six months before this book went to press that the November Internet infection was not a virus, but a worm. The authors may have known this and disagreed, but if so they made no case of their own.

McAfee and Haynes express a surprising attitude toward computer “hackers,” devotees of computing often characterized as obsessive. They draw a distinction between benign hackers, stalwarts of modern computer programming, and those whose motives are more malignant and who produce most of the world’s computer viruses. This much makes sense. The malignant type, who “regard [McAfee] as a worthy adversary,” are cited as frequenting computer bulletin boards, boasting of their latest intrusions into supposedly secure systems. It is these same bulletin boards, we are told, that are the source of many virulent, contagious strains of virus. Readers are clearly warned to keep their computers isolated from hackers, and to expect infection should they run any program found on a bulletin board. Eight pages after this warning comes the surprise. McAfee’s own software company, we are told, contracts with programmers, sight-unseen, over computer bulletin boards, and incorporates their code into its own commercial software products. This speaks well of McAfee’s regard for his own ability to detect viruses and, perhaps, to judge character electronically. It doesn’t say much for his heeding his own advice.

Despite promises early in the book that it is not written for those with deep technical skills, the 20 pages of chapter nine (ten percent of the text between prologue and appendix) consist mostly of commented assembly code, representing portions of two computer viruses. Without deep technical skills, the reader will get absolutely nothing from this chapter. The authors insist that these programs have been altered so as not to function as written. Still, the wisdom of providing samples of virus code to anyone is questionable.

The subtitle promises that the book will tell the reader how to defend a “PC, Mac, or mainframe” against viruses, etc. But the discussion of virus mechanics and the chapter on protection products deal almost exclusively with IBM PCs and clones running the MS-DOS operating system. A single Macintosh protection product gets less than a page, and mainframe protection products are omitted entirely.

In most matters, the tone of this book is authoritative. Facts and figures are stated freely. But the authoritative tone is hollow. Of twenty-three references to books, periodicals, and other documents, only four citations include author, title, date, and publisher. The rest contain less information. Nary a one includes page numbers. The majority of factual information is not referenced at all. Chapter two contains an “analysis” of costs of the Internet worm. It provides a full page of figures, and cites a total cost to the computing community of $98,253,260. (Note that the cost is calculated to the nearest $10.) Not a reference is cited, nor is a method of estimation. Criticism on this score, at least, is not new to McAfee. Deloitte Haskins & Sells, in mid-1989, published Computer Viruses, the proceedings of their October 1988 symposium on the topic. In it (page 20) Donn B. Parker of SRI International states: “The Computer Virus Industry Association estimates (without any supporting facts) that more than 250,000 microcomputer users have had their microcomputer memories wiped out by variations of the ‘Pakistani Brain’ virus alone.””

Sheehan, Mark. “Computer Viruses, Worms, Data Diddlers, Killer Programs, and Other Threats to Your System: What They Are, How They Work, and How to Defend Your PC, Mac, or Mainframe.” Online Jan. 1990: 76+