One of the remarkable aspects of SoBig.F, the computer virus now circling the globe and currently infecting more than 145,000 computers, is the way it invites digital suicide. It is said that many otherwise well-adjusted people who climb to the top of high buildings or mountains have difficulty suppressing a powerful urge to jump. SoBig.F plays into the same impulse.
We who receive it soon realize with horror that if we do what the virus wants us to do, and click just once with our mouse, we will create, at the very least, great annoyance for ourselves and many people we know -- and perhaps much worse. It's a terrifying prospect, and in a perverse way, also momentarily tempting, just like a mountaintop.
I write as one who has been subject, for the last week, to a level of annoyance that makes the usual e-mailed ads for Viagra and penile enhancement seem benign and welcome by comparison. It started on Monday with six or eight slightly mysterious messages, and on Tuesday there were 15 or 20 more. By the weekend I was receiving about 300 a day. Now, every time I open my e-mail program, 15 or 20 await me.
SoBig.F installs itself with ease in the computers of those who lack up-to-date virus protection. In my case, an anti-virus system rejects obvious assaults, so the virus in effect asks for permission to enter.
Having failed to climb in the window, it knocks politely on the door.
Its poisoned messages appear to come from many sources, and carry several different phrases on the subject line. Someone claiming to be firstname.lastname@example.org promises to give me "My details" and email@example.com announces I'm to receive "That movie." An important-sounding sender, firstname.lastname@example.org, offers me a "Wicked screensaver," email@example.com trumpets "Approved" (my loan application, or what?) and firstname.lastname@example.org says, simply, "Thank you!"
Each of these correspondents wants me to open the message and then click on the attachment to receive full details. By good luck, I belong to a cult of computer users whose guru teaches only two holy commandments: (1) Save whatever you write, all the time; (2) Never, ever open an attachment that comes to you unexpectedly, even if it appears to be from someone you know.
As The New York Times said on Saturday, when it played SoBig.F as a major front-page story, recipients of these messages must decline to open the attachments and then delete the message. The Times quoted Johannes Ullrich, chief technology officer of SANS Internet Storm Center, in Bethesda: "The No. 1 thing is, don't click on these attachments."
And what if we do? That click admits SoBig.F to our system. The worm (properly so called, rather than a virus) then takes over our address book and resends itself, again and again, to our friends and colleagues, signing its messages with names taken at random from our files. And what else will it do? No one knows. Maybe it will erase the hard drive of everyone infected. Maybe it will display a happy-face message as a sign of victory, or teasingly direct us all to a porn site. In any case, it's a serious nuisance.
The FBI is on the case, and so are many computer security companies. The online detectives think they have broken the coded instructions embedded in the messages that set up the computer in the first place, but they also believe that it can reconfigure itself and come back to haunt us; this version of SoBig is the sixth. Eliminating it is a global operation, and apparently the leading sleuths work at a company called F-Secure in Helsinki. A Vancouver computer was used to launch the virus, apparently without the knowledge of its owner.
Who in the world would work so hard just to cause trouble for strangers, and why? To comprehend the motives of those who create and spread computer viruses, we must seek our inner delinquent. We must reach down into our souls and find the rotten little kid we once were -- or, at least, many of us were.
I certainly understand. When I was 11 years old (I hope I was no more than that) a house was being built in my corner of Toronto. One day, bricklayers carefully constructed a wall and then went home. An hour later my friends and I (the rotten little kids on our street) carefully dismantled the entire wall. At the time it seemed the most delightful thing to do. It was madness, of course, the madness of vandals who enjoy destruction for the pleasure of destruction. To boys, who have not developed secure ideas about decency and the proper treatment of others, vandalism can be as much fun as hockey, and more daring.
If many of us carried that madness through our lives, civilization would be impossible. Fortunately, it stays with only a few people, virus-creators among them. While endlessly clever and far-seeing in their use of Internet technology, they remain unformed 11-year-olds at heart. We should hope, however, that when apprehended they will be sentenced in accordance with their chronological age.