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The Virus and the Hobbyist

William Gibson is about as good as anyone at predicting (and shaping) the future. So naturally, when he admits he got something very wrong it’s pretty interesting. In this case he’s talking about viruses and how rather than traditionally being tools of states (stuxnet is the impetus for the editorial), they’ve been tools of hobbyists:

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.)

January 28, 2011


  • candice says:

    I think he’s still not quite right – malware writing has been big business for at least four years now. Most of the it is off-the-shelf and kit-based. Your average Joe (Ivan?) virus creator doesn’t write a thing.

    Not that a basic (earlier) virus requires a lot of skill, it requires google and cut and paste and some experimentation.

    Stuxnet isn’t quite off the shelf – whomever did it bought or built several exploits from scratch, and dropped in the control systems code. It’s odd enough, but we honestly were expecting better out of Israel.

    Perhaps it’s a decoy?

    From a computer-sciencey standpoint, Conficker is much scarier – it appears to have been written by real programmers.

    The hobbyists are mostly the analysts, now.

    (I took a class on doing malware analysis a couple of years ago. This is what I read up on for fun.)

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