25 Years of Digital Vandalism

In January 1986, Basit and Amjad Alvi, sibling programmers living near the main train station in Lahore, Pakistan, wrote a piece of code to safeguard the latest version of their heart-monitoring software from piracy. They called it Brain, and it was basically a wheel-clamp for PCs. Computers that ran their program, plus this new bit of code, would stop working after a year, though they cheerfully provided three telephone numbers, against the day. If you were a legitimate user, and could prove it, they’d unlock you.

But in the way of all emergent technologies, something entirely unintended happened. The Alvis’ wheel-clamp was soon copied by a certain stripe of computer hobbyist, who began to distribute it, concealed within various digital documents that people might be expected to want to open. Because almost all these booby-trapped files went out on floppy disks, the virus spread at a pre-Internet snail’s pace.

Still, it did wreak a certain amount of low-grade havoc, freezing computers across the world. The hobbyists did it because they could, or to proudly demonstrate that they could, or to see what would happen, or simply because they thought it was neat.

This proved hellishly embarrassing for the Alvi brothers, whose three telephone numbers were often inadvertently included in the files, and eventually they had to cut all three lines. There were far too many angry callers, mainly from the United States and Britain. In short, the road to our present universe teeming with viruses, worms and Trojan horses was paved, a quarter-century ago this month, with the Alvi brothers’ good intentions of securing their intellectual property.

At the time, I found it surprising that these virus-writers were apparently amateurs, civilians. I had imagined computer viruses as strategic military weapons, the business of governments, not practical jokers. Viruses might be sometimes purloined by specialist criminals looking for a big score but were never something one could cobble together at home.

But precisely the opposite happened. Virus-writers seemed, at least at first, to be in it for anything but money. The outcome was simply vandalism, as dull as someone smashing out the light fixtures in a bus shelter. Random bits of software or pieces of equipment would temporarily quit functioning. Random strangers were anonymously discommoded. Somewhere, I assumed, someone had a rather abstract giggle.

I wasn’t impressed, however arcane the know-how that was required. But I was embarrassed at how thoroughly I’d missed this in my fiction: the pettiness of most virus-writing, the banality of the result. I had never depicted, much less imagined, anyone doing anything as pointlessly ill-intentioned. (I began to try, on the margins of my work, to remedy that oversight, if only for the sake of naturalism.)

Last fall, when I learned of the Stuxnet attack on the computers running Iran’s nuclear program, I briefly thought that here, finally, was the real thing: a cyberweapon purpose-built by one state actor to strategically interfere with the business of another.

But as more details emerged, it began to look less like something new and more like a piece of hobbyist “street” technology, albeit one expensively optimized for a specific attack. The state actor — said to be Israel, perhaps working with the United States, though no one is sure — had simply built on the unpaid labor of generations of hobbyist vandals.

Stuxnet isn’t spectacularly original, as computer worms go, and those Iranian systems aren’t terribly exotic. They’re like ours. As a result, I expect we’ll see a wave of unpleasant backwash, with military money and technology beefing up the code, the digital DNA, of the descendants of Brain.

Any hobbyist worth his or her salt will, in turn, be admiring the Stuxnet code that shut down the Iranian centrifuges, looking to imitate and improve on it. And non-state players, from digital vandals to terrorists, will be casting an appraising eye, if they haven’t already, at the computers that monitor and control more ordinary but nonetheless critical systems: water treatment and distribution, sewage, oil and gas pipelines, electrical transmission lines, wind farms and nuclear power plants.

Should the lights go out in our online bus shelters one day, or some critical control system go spectacularly awry, it may in a sense, however distantly, be because Israel found a way to shut down Iran’s centrifuges. But in another way it will be the result of a bright idea two brothers once had, in the vicinity of Lahore Railway Station, to innocently clamp a digital pirate’s wheel.

William Gibson, the author, most recently, of the novel Zero History.

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