Rhodri Marsden: Cyberman

Deceptive lovers

The popping of champagne corks was conspicuously absent this weekend, as the 20th anniversary of the very first PC virus went unmarked, save for the odd grimace from anyone wearily reinstalling system software. The pioneering virus, known as "Brain", was an innocuous little thing which merely renamed the floppy disk on which it found itself, and the writers - the Pakistani brothers Amjad and Basit Alvi - were so unafraid of reprisal that they even included their address and phone number in the code. But today's viruses come with no such return address, and bring untold misery.

True, a significant part of that misery is a feeling of abject stupidity at having been conned into opening a message promising lurid images of Anna Kournikova, but which actually contains malicious, self-replicating code. Anti-virus companies refer to this as "social engineering", and it's incredibly effective. Only six years ago a virus-laced e-mail carrying the enticing subject line of "I Love You" led to global havoc.

The threat from viruses is growing. Criminal gangs have realised the potential of viruses for extortion, with relentless pop-up windows making us so hysterical that we're prepared to type our credit card number into one of them just to make them go away. Socially maladjusted geeks become addicted to the challenge of writing code that stays ahead of anti-virus software, and seem equally keen to adopt ludicrous aliases such as DoomMonger. According to analysts, they tend to give up their activities as soon as they find true love - but, if you're going to try to seduce one and save us all from the viral menace, you may have to try a little harder than sending them an e-mail saying "I Love You".

cyber@timewasting.net

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