Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A great philosophical piece in a book on computer viruses!

The following is from Introduction chapter in 'The little black book on computer viruses' by Mark Ludwig


This is the first in a series of three books about computer
viruses. In these volumes I want to challenge you to think in new
ways about viruses, and break down false concepts and wrong ways
of thinking, and go on from there to discuss the relevance of
computer viruses in today’s world. These books are not a call to a
witch hunt, or manuals for protecting yourself from viruses. On the
contrary, they will teach you how to design viruses, deploy them,
and make them better. All three volumes are full of source code for
viruses, including both new and well known varieties.
It is inevitable that these books will offend some people.
In fact, I hope they do. They need to. I am convinced that computer
viruses are not evil and that programmers have a right to create
them, posses them and experiment with them. That kind of a stand
is going to offend a lot of people, no matter how it is presented.
Even a purely technical treatment of viruses which simply dis-
cussed how to write them and provided some examples would be
offensive. The mere thought of a million well armed hackers out
there is enough to drive some bureaucrats mad. These books go
beyond a technical treatment, though, to defend the idea that viruses
can be useful, interesting, and just plain fun. That is bound to prove
even more offensive. Still, the truth is the truth, and it needs to be
spoken, even if it is offensive. Morals and ethics cannot be deter-
mined by a majority vote, any more than they can be determined
by the barrel of a gun or a loud mouth. Might does not make right.

If you turn out to be one of those people who gets offended
or upset, or if you find yourself violently disagreeing with some-
thing I say, just remember what an athletically minded friend of
mine once told me: “No pain, no gain.” That was in reference to
muscle building, but the principle applies intellectually as well as
physically. If someone only listens to people he agrees with, he will
never grow and he’ll never succeed beyond his little circle of
yes-men. On the other hand, a person who listens to different ideas
at the risk of offense, and who at least considers that he might be
wrong, cannot but gain from it. So if you are offended by something
in this book, please be critical—both of the book and of yourself—
and don’t fall into a rut and let someone else tell you how to think.

From the start I want to stress that I do not advocate
anyone’s going out and infecting an innocent party’s computer
system with a malicious virus designed to destroy valuable data or
bring their system to a halt. That is not only wrong, it is illegal. If
you do that, you could wind up in jail or find yourself being sued
for millions. However this does not mean that it is illegal to create
a computer virus and experiment with it, even though I know some
people wish it was. If you do create a virus, though, be careful with
it. Make sure you know it is working properly or you may wipe out
your own system by accident. And make sure you don’t inadver-
tently release it into the world, or you may find yourself in a legal
jam . . . even if it was just an accident. The guy who loses a year’s
worth of work may not be so convinced that it was an accident. And
soon it may be illegal to infect a computer system (even your own)
with a benign virus which does no harm at all. The key word here
is responsibility. Be responsible. If you do something destructive,
be prepared to take responsibility. The programs included in this
book could be dangerous if improperly used. Treat them with the
respect you would have for a lethal weapon.

This first of three volumes is a technical introduction to the
basics of writing computer viruses. It discusses what a virus is, and
how it does its job, going into the major functional components of
the virus, step by step. Several different types of viruses are
developed from the ground up, giving the reader practical how-to
information for writing viruses. That is also a prerequisite for
decoding and understanding any viruses one may run across in his
day to day computing. Many people think of viruses as sort of a
black art. The purpose of this volume is to bring them out of the
closet and look at them matter-of-factly, to see them for what they
are, technically speaking: computer programs.

The second volume discusses the scientific applications of
computer viruses. There is a whole new field of scientific study
known as artificial life (AL) research which is opening up as a result
of the invention of viruses and related entities. Since computer
viruses are functionally similar to living organisms, biology can
teach us a lot about them, both how they behave and how to make
them better. However computer viruses also have the potential to
teach us something about living organisms. We can create and
control computer viruses in a way that we cannot yet control living
organisms. This allows us to look at life abstractly to learn about
what it really is. We may even reflect on such great questions as the
beginning and subsequent evolution of life.
The third volume of this series discusses military applica-
tions for computer viruses. It is well known that computer viruses
can be extremely destructive, and that they can be deployed with
minimal risk. Military organizations throughout the world know
that too, and consider the possibility of viral attack both a very real
threat and a very real offensive option. Some high level officials in
various countries already believe their computers have been at-
tacked for political reasons. So the third volume will probe military
strategies and real-life attacks, and dig into the development of viral
weapon systems, defeating anti-viral defenses, etc.
You might be wondering at this point why you should
spend time studying these volumes. After all, computer viruses
apparently have no commercial value apart from their military
applications. Learning how to write them may not make you more
employable, or give you new techniques to incorporate into pro-
grams. So why waste time with them, unless you need them to sow
chaos among your enemies? Let me try to answer that: Ever since
computers were invented in the 1940’s, there has been a brother-
hood of people dedicated to exploring the limitless possibilities of
these magnificent machines. This brotherhood has included famous
mathematicians and scientists, as well as thousands of unnamed
hobbyists who built their own computers, and programmers who
love to dig into the heart of their machines. As long as computers
have been around, men have dreamed of intelligent machines which
would reason, and act without being told step by step just what to
do. For many years this was purely science fiction. However, the
very thought of this possibility drove some to attempt to make it a
reality. Thus “artificial intelligence” was born. Yet AI applications
are often driven by commercial interests, and tend to be colored by
that fact. Typical results are knowledge bases and the like—useful,
sometimes exciting, but also geared toward putting the machine to
use in a specific way, rather than to exploring it on its own terms.

The computer virus is a radical new approach to this idea
of “living machines.” Rather than trying to design something which
poorly mimics highly complex human behavior, one starts by trying
to copy the simplest of living organisms. Simple one-celled organ-
isms don’t do very much. The most primitive organisms draw
nutrients from the sea in the form of inorganic chemicals, and take
energy from the sun, and their only goal is apparently to survive
and to reproduce. They aren’t very intelligent, and it would be tough
to argue about their metaphysical aspects like “soul.” Yet they do
what they were programmed to do, and they do it very effectively.
If we were to try to mimic such organisms by building a machine—
a little robot—which went around collecting raw materials and
putting them together to make another little robot, we would have
a very difficult task on our hands. On the other hand, think of a
whole new universe—not this physical world, but an electronic one,
which exists inside of a computer. Here is the virus’ world. Here it
can “live” in a sense not too different from that of primitive
biological life. The computer virus has the same goal as a living
organism—to survive and to reproduce. It has environmental ob-
stacles to overcome, which could “kill” it and render it inoperative.
And once it is released, it seems to have a mind of its own. It runs
off in its electronic world doing what it was programmed to do. In
this sense it is very much alive.

There is no doubt that the beginning of life was an impor-
tant milestone in the history of the earth. However, if one tries to
consider it from the viewpoint of inanimate matter, it is difficult to
imagine life as being much more than a nuisance. We usually
assume that life is good and that it deserves to be protected.
However, one cannot take a step further back and see life as
somehow beneficial to the inanimate world. If we consider only the
atoms of the universe, what difference does it make if the tempera-
ture is seventy degrees farenheit or twenty million? What difference
would it make if the earth were covered with radioactive materials?
None at all. Whenever we talk about the environment and ecology,
we always assume that life is good and that it should be nurtured
and preserved. Living organisms universally use the inanimate
world with little concern for it, from the smallest cell which freely
gathers the nutrients it needs and pollutes the water it swims in,
right up to the man who crushes up rocks to refine the metals out
of them and build airplanes. Living organisms use the material
world as they see fit. Even when people get upset about something
like strip mining, or an oil spill, their point of reference is not that
of inanimate nature. It is an entirely selfish concept (with respect
to life) that motivates them. The mining mars the beauty of the
landscape—a beauty which is in the eye of the (living) beholder—
and it makes it uninhabitable. If one did not place a special
emphasis on life, one could just as well promote strip mining as an
attempt to return the earth to its pre-biotic state!

I say all of this not because I have a bone to pick with
ecologists. Rather I want to apply the same reasoning to the world
of computer viruses. As long as one uses only financial criteria to
evaluate the worth of a computer program, viruses can only be seen
as a menace. What do they do besides damage valuable programs
and data? They are ruthless in attempting to gain access to the
computer system resources, and often the more ruthless they are,
the more successful. Yet how does that differ from biological life?
If a clump of moss can attack a rock to get some sunshine and grow,
it will do so ruthlessly. We call that beautiful. So how different is
that from a computer virus attaching itself to a program? If all one
is concerned about is the preservation of the inanimate objects
(which are ordinary programs) in this electronic world, then of
course viruses are a nuisance.

But maybe there is something deeper here. That all depends
on what is most important to you, though. It seems that modern
culture has degenerated to the point where most men have no higher
goals in life than to seek their own personal peace and prosperity.
By personal peace, I do not mean freedom from war, but a freedom
to think and believe whatever you want without ever being chal-
lenged in it. More bluntly, the freedom to live in a fantasy world of
your own making. By prosperity, I mean simply an ever increasing
abundance of material possessions. Karl Marx looked at all of
mankind and said that the motivating force behind every man is his
economic well being. The result, he said, is that all of history can
be interpreted in terms of class struggles—people fighting for
economic control. Even though many in our government decry
Marx as the father of communism, our nation is trying to squeeze
into the straight jacket he has laid for us. That is why two of George
Bush’s most important campaign promises were “four more years
of prosperity” and “no new taxes.” People vote their wallets, even
when they know the politicians are lying through the teeth.

In a society with such values, the computer becomes
merely a resource which people use to harness an abundance of
information and manipulate it to their advantage. If that is all there
is to computers, then computer viruses are a nuisance, and they
should be eliminated. Surely there must be some nobler purpose
for mankind than to make money, though, even though that may be
necessary. Marx may not think so. The government may not think
so. And a lot of loud-mouthed people may not think so. Yet great
men from every age and every nation testify to the truth that man
does have a higher purpose. Should we not be as Socrates, who
considered himself ignorant, and who sought Truth and Wisdom,
and valued them more highly than silver and gold? And if so, the
question that really matters is not how computers can make us
wealthy or give us power over others, but how they might make us
wise. What can we learn about ourselves? about our world? and,
yes, maybe even about God? Once we focus on that, computer
viruses become very interesting. Might we not understand life a
little better if we can create something similar, and study it, and try
to understand it? And if we understand life better, will we not
understand our lives, and our world better as well?

A word of caution first: Centuries ago, our nation was
established on philosophical principles of good government, which
were embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Consti-
tution. As personal peace and prosperity have become more impor-
tant than principles of good government, the principles have been
manipulated and redefined to suit the whims of those who are in
power. Government has become less and less sensitive to civil
rights, while it has become easy for various political and financial
interests to manipulate our leaders to their advantage.

Since people have largely ceased to challenge each other
in what they believe, accepting instead the idea that whatever you
want to believe is OK, the government can no longer get people to
obey the law because everyone believes in a certain set of principles
upon which the law is founded. Thus, government must coerce
people into obeying it with increasingly harsh penalties for disobe-
dience—penalties which often fly in the face of long established
civil rights. Furthermore, the government must restrict the average
man’s ability to seek recourse. For example, it is very common for
the government to trample all over long standing constitutional
rights when enforcing the tax code. The IRS routinely forces
hundreds of thousands of people to testify against themselves. It
routinely puts the burden of proof on the accused, seizes his assets
without trial, etc., etc. The bottom line is that it is not expedient for
the government to collect money from its citizens if it has to prove
their tax documents wrong. The whole system would break down
in a massive overload. Economically speaking, it is just better to
put the burden of proof on the citizen, Bill of Rights or no.

Likewise, to challenge the government on a question of
rights is practically impossible, unless your case happens to serve
the purposes of some powerful special interest group. In a standard
courtroom, one often cannot even bring up the subject of constitu-
tional rights. The only question to be argued is whether or not some
particular law was broken. To appeal to the Supreme Court will cost
millions, if the politically motivated justices will even condescend
to hear the case. So the government becomes practically all-pow-
erful, God walking on earth, to the common man. One man seems
to have little recourse but to blindly obey those in power.

When we start talking about computer viruses, we’re tread-
ing on some ground that certain people want to post a “No Tres-
passing” sign on. The Congress of the United States has considered
a “Computer Virus Eradication Act” which would make it a felony
to write a virus, or for two willing parties to exchange one. Never
mind that the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and
freedom of the press. Never mind that it guarantees the citizens the
right to bear military arms (and viruses might be so classified).
While that law has not passed as of this writing, it may by the time
you read this book. If so, I will say without hesitation that it is a
miserable tyranny, but one that we can do little about . . . for now.

Some of our leaders may argue that many people are not
capable of handling the responsibility of power that comes with
understanding computer viruses, just as they argue that people are
not able to handle the power of owning assault rifles or machine
guns. Perhaps some cannot. But I wonder, are our leaders any better
able to handle the much more dangerous weapons of law and
limitless might? Obviously they think so, since they are busy trying
to centralize all power into their own hands. I disagree. If those in
government can handle power, then so can the individual. If the
individual cannot, then neither can his representatives, and our end
is either tyranny or chaos anyhow. So there is no harm in attempting
to restore some small power to the individual.
But remember: truth seekers and wise men have been
persecuted by powerful idiots in every age. Although computer
viruses may be very interesting and worthwhile, those who take an
interest in them may face some serious challenges from base men.
So be careful.

Now join with me and take the attitude of early scientists.
These explorers wanted to understand how the world worked—and
whether it could be turned to a profit mattered little. They were
trying to become wiser in what’s really important by understanding
the world a little better. After all, what value could there be in
building a telescope so you could see the moons around Jupiter?
Galileo must have seen something in it, and it must have meant
enough to him to stand up to the ruling authorities of his day and
do it, and talk about it, and encourage others to do it. And to land
in prison for it. Today some people are glad he did.
So why not take the same attitude when it comes to creating
life on a computer? One has to wonder where it might lead. Could
there be a whole new world of electronic life forms possible, of
which computer viruses are only the most rudimentary sort? Per-
haps they are the electronic analog of the simplest one-celled
creatures, which were only the tiny beginning of life on earth. What
would be the electronic equivalent of a flower, or a dog? Where
could it lead? The possibilities could be as exciting as the idea of a
man actually standing on the moon would have been to Galileo. We
just have no idea.
There is something in certain men that simply drives them
to explore the unknown. When standing at the edge of a vast ocean
upon which no ship has ever sailed, it is difficult not to wonder what
lies beyond the horizon just because the rulers of the day tell you
you’re going to fall of the edge of the world (or they’re going to
push you off) if you try to find out. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps
there is nothing of value out there. Yet other great explorers down
through the ages have explored other oceans and succeeded. And
one thing is for sure: we’ll never know if someone doesn’t look. So
I would like to invite you to climb aboard this little raft that I have
built and go exploring. . . .

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