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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 August, 2003, 00:19 GMT 01:19 UK
Why people write computer viruses
Dr Jo Twist
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online technology reporter

Millions of inboxes and networks have been brought to their knees by a triple whammy of computer viruses. So who are the people behind these creations that can wreak havoc on the net?

Computer virus
Viruses try every trick to catch out computer users
The kind of person who creates such disruption differs in age, income, location, social/peer interaction, educational level, likes, dislikes and communication style, according to Sarah Gordon renowned expert in computer viruses and security technology.

The stereotypical image of a spotty "Kevin the Teenager" virus creator, the schoolboy who has the tools to do it and something to prove, still largely prevails.

There is however, an increasingly sinister side to the virus writer.

Motivated by financial gain, they are more and more likely to be working with spammers and hackers, says Paul Wood, chief security analyst at MessageLabs.

"The money is coming from the spammers and we are seeing evidence that they are starting to employ the best of breed virus writers to help them.

"It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but they are becoming very advanced now in organised hi-tech criminal activity," he told BBC News Online.

This is evident in Sobig F, which turns a computer into a host to send out millions of spam e-mails, often without the owner's knowledge.

Person at a computer keyboard
There are many reasons why people write viruses
With the clampdown on unsolicited e-mail, which now accounts for 50% of e-mail traffic, spammers need to find ways like this to continue their nuisance work

The author of such a virus may get a buzz from being successful, but they are also likely to be making a large profit from whoever is using this army of Trojans as a source for spamming, Mr Wood explains.

Indeed, hackers and virus writers are closer than they used to be, adds Graham Cluley senior consultant at Sophos security.

"In the past hackers would look down on virus writers as rather immature, as hackers can at least, usually, give some reason for what they do."

There certainly is growing evidence that more virus writers are becoming interested in hacking into computers to steal confidential information, according to Mr Cluley.

Why do it?

Just as virus writers are not a homogenous group of individuals, other reasons for writing such irritating or destructive computer programs are varied.

Aside from the growing organised crime element, there are still some who do it for the kudos in their community, so much so they have formed loose "gangs", usually between 16 and 26 years old.

"The cybergangs have names like 29A, Metaphase, YAM (Youth Against McAfee) and Phalcon Skism (Smart Kids Into Sick Methods). The gangs give the adolescents a sense of belonging and help raise their esteem," explains Mr Cluley.

Many do it for the technical challenge, although it is actually extremely easy to write a virus, and does not require a genius IQ, Mr Cluley says.

Adolescent at a computer
They will often write something then prove to themselves it can work, it's like a scoring thing.
Paul Wood, MessageLabs

"Others have even claimed that viruses are an art and a form of expression, and should not be stopped. The anti-virus community chooses to express its freedom by ignoring that argument," he argues.

Most do it to impress their mates, according to Mr Cluley, and have similar motives to "vandals". Why would someone graffiti or break a perfectly innocent window?

The answer is to claim territory, to make a mark in space - or cyberspace - that will be seen by many.

"I think some computer-literate teenagers on the scene get a kick out of seeing their creation spread around the world and cause multi-nationals and home users alike considerable problems," says Mr Cluley.

"Of course, it must be galling for them that they cannot brag too much about what they have done, for fear that they might be caught."

Others are driven by ideological motives, for political reasons or to highlight questions about freedom of information or information security.

"They will often write something then prove to themselves it can work, it's like a scoring thing," says Mr Wood.

Here to stay

Academics Andy Bissett and Geraldine Shipton at the University of Sheffield think it is a lot more complicated than that and have identified both unconscious and conscious motives behind virus writers.

Such conscious motives include "non-specific malice", revenge, cyber-espionage and commercial sabotage.

Whatever the reason, virus writers, like vandals, are here to stay. The 'Kevin the Teenager' virus writer eventually grows up and gets a job or discovers girls, explains Mr Cluley. There are always more adolescents in the wings to take their place though.

"The real 'sad' virus writers are those who are still writing and spreading viruses in their 30s and 40s. They really should grow up, and take a long hard think about the ethics and morality of what they are doing," he says.

The sophisticated, organised crime element however, is a more worrying development and something with which corporations and home-users alike should be concerned.


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