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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 November, 2003, 12:16 GMT
A glimpse inside the virus writer
Screengrab of the Palyh virus, BBC
It's not just technical tricks that make viruses successful
When most people catch a computer virus it usually makes them much more diligent and update their anti-virus software more often.

But when computer security researcher Sarah Gordon was hit by a virus it did not just make her worry about what was lurking in her inbox.

It also spurred an interest in who would write such pernicious programs and why they would send them out on to the internet.

Now Ms Gordon is a world expert on the psychology of virus writers, why they do it and what will make them stop.

Bad bugs

She started her exploration of the virus writing world almost 20 years ago using the Echomail system on the Fidonet network of discussion groups and bulletin boards.

"Because I was not working with law enforcement and had no hidden agenda I found that people were happy to chat and meet with me," she said.

As well as quizzing people online, Ms Gordon, who now works for security firm Symantec, became a regular at the conferences and conventions that virus writers attend and organise.

All those years of research and contact have revealed that many myths about virus writers are just that.

"The stereotype that virus writers are all young teenage boys with no social life, hiding in their basement is not accurate," she said.

In contrast, she said, most virus creators are typical for their age, are on good terms with friends and family and are often contributors to their local community.

Screenshot of ILoveYou virus, AP
Many viruses are a real nuisance
Often, she said, teenagers became virus writers because they saw creating such programs as a technical challenge.

Few professional programmers would share the view that writing a virus is difficult, she said, but for a teenager just becoming familiar with computers, simply finding a virus writing kit and creating a working program was a complex task.

Others write viruses because their friends tinker with technology and it is just another way of exploring what can be done with computers. For some groups writing and releasing a virus is an act of protest, she said.

The vast majority of nuisance low-impact viruses are written by people in such groups, she said.

Community test

Whatever the reason for writing a virus, all these groups share a common blindspot, said Ms Gordon, which is that they have no conception that what they are doing can affect the wider world.

"They do not connect the impact of what they do on the computer with the impact on another person," she said.

"But," she said, "once they realise that it can have an impact on other people, they age out of it and stop."

Her research has shown Ms Gordon that there is a real difference between virus writers and hackers.

While virus writers are usually socially adept, many hackers are not.

"When you see a complex virus," she said, "it's come out of the hacking community."

In her experience many malicious hackers have a borderline criminal view of the world and do not share mainstream ethical norms.

"Their judgement processes might be different," she said, "as well as their perception of risk and reward."

The good news, said Ms Gordon, was that it should be possible to stop many teenagers turning into virus writers.

"I believe that with correctly designed curriculum, talking about ethics can really reduce these behaviours," she said, "they need to learn from the first time they use a computer what is appropriate and what is not."

"Virus writing is not rocket science," she said, "it's undesirable and irresponsible behaviour."

She said: "There are much better ways to use your time online."

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05 Aug 03  |  Technology

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