Vandals, Viruses, and Moral Decisions

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Vandals, Viruses, and Moral Decisions

Peter Vogel            
 
Living up here in Canada, I have a different viewpoint on our neighbor to the south, the United States of America. Since Pinnacle (the publisher of this newsletter), most of our readership, and Microsoft are all American, my interest in the USA is more than academic. Up in Canada, for instance, we currently don't have the death penalty, while the United States does. Personally, I'm opposed to capital punishment, but every once in a while someone does something that causes my convictions to waver. People who create and distribute viruses leap to mind, for instance. I'm convinced that horse whipping is too good for them, and there are times I've favored capital punishment.
 
My first experience with a virus (about eight years ago) required me to reformat my hard disk twice during a six-month period. It also cost me (and my children) every piece of software that we had on floppy disk. I was enraged, to say the least. Since then, the virus problem has only gotten worse. The latest wrinkle is people distributing information about non-existent viruses. You might have received an e-mail note, for example, stating that opening an e-mail with the subject "Join the Crew" will infect your computer. This isn't true. The purported warning from IBM that sometimes accompanies this notice also appears to be a hoax.
 
It's difficult for me to understand people who derive a feeling of accomplishment from hurting others. Following the newsgroup postings by the author of the AccessiV virus on www.dejanews.com was . . . informative. The initial posting by the virus's author indicated that he was quite proud of his accomplishment. In successive postings, the author describes the planned enhancements to his product (later versions will find MDB files in directories other than the one that the infected database is in, for instance). As I read, I found myself in a topsy-turvy world where programmers did the same things I did but for completely different purposes.
 
At one point, another programmer posted a request that asked developers to join a group to create and distribute new viruses. The purpose is to "screw Microsoft." The Access virus author responds to say that he regrets he can't participate because he's already a member of a group. The conversation is especially bizarre because it isn't Microsoft that will be "screwed" -- it's programmers and users like you and me who are damaged by viruses.
 
I've certainly done some dumb things in my career. I admit that I've suffered from "programmer's disease" -- if it can be coded, it must be coded. At various times in my life, I've written my own report writer, forms management system, and database. Twice, I've created my own language. The fact that these were colossal wastes of time and money when better products were available cheap at Egghead didn't matter to me -- I was having fun! I love to code, and I look for projects that will let me write things I haven't done before. I could imagine creating an Access virus just to see if it could be done. I can't imagine letting it out into the world or providing instructions on how to do it.
 
Which leads to a moral decision. As part of the article on the virus (see "Access Virus Alert" in this issue), I had to decide whether to tell you where you could find a copy of this virus. Granted, the threat of the virus is small, but I was reluctant to make this information readily available.
 
While knowledge of the virus (including how it works) is valuable to Smart Access readers in order to mount a defense, I couldn't, in good conscience, distribute this information here.
 
However, a search I performed on the virus's name on a commonly used search engine turned up several hits on pages that mentioned the virus. It was scary to me to find out how easy it is to get the software equivalent of a Saturday night special. If you aren't taking action against this -- and every other -- virus threat, then you're being very foolish. Let's take the appearance of this relatively benign virus as our warning.