Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Why do people write viruses???

Every time when reports of a big new virus or other malware attack hits media, my mind will be out for an answer for the question: Why do people write viruses?

I answer as succinctly as I can, but the question is a deep and complex one. Why do people burglarize homes? Why do people tag buildings with graffiti? Why do they post anonymous hatred on online message boards? Why do they play video games? These questions may sound like they have nothing to do with one another, but you might be surprised how their answers are all related to the topic at hand.

TechRepublic offered an interesting analysis of this issue a month ago but it slipped by me. Fortunately I stumbled upon it this weekend and hope you'll give it a read in order to help shed a little light on a surprisingly complex issue.

So why do people write viruses (and I'll use that term loosely throughout this post as a descriptive for any kind of malware)?

TechRepublic plays it down a bit, but my #1 answer to the question is always the obvious one: For the money. In the old days, a virus designed to erase your hard drive or fill your computer screen with garbage was just a prank (more on that later) but those viruses are quite rare these days. Nowadays, the vast majority of viruses have far more practical ends: They make your PC send spam, they harvest financial information, turn computers into zombies, and extort money out of you directly if you want it deleted. All of these have direct and quantifiable financial goals: Spam is paid for by the message (or the millions of messages) sent. Personal data can be sold on the black market for use in identity theft. It's business, pure and simple -- bad business, to be sure, but all about the cash at the end of the day.

Several of the items on the TechRepublic list get at a secondary reason for virus-writing: They do it because they can. It's the same reason people jump out of planes or drive at insane speeds: It's a thrill, and for a certain subset of programmers, there's a thrill, a laugh, or a power-trip to be had from causing as much damage as possible -- and getting away with it. While most virus writers don't want attention (which can bring serious prison time in the end), a few do, and some underground hackers get off on the notoriety.

Sabotage -- whatever the motivation -- is another common theme in malware creation. Any political issue -- whether it's a presidential election or a Microsoft vs. open source legal spat -- tends to be ground zero for hacker attacks. Denial of service attacks are commonly launched against websites owned by those with opinions unpopular in the hacker community. And that's where your machine comes in: Hackers compromise it with malware to turn it into a DoS zombie.

So, getting the picture? Viruses and other malware are going to be with us forever because they're a digital version of human nature.

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