Good and evil in viruses

Onel de Guzman, the AMA Computer College student who is being eyed as one of the authors of the ILOVEYOU virus that paralyzed at least 45 million computers worldwide, could not graduate this year because his thesis had been rejected.  According to school officials, De Guzman submitted for his thesis a program which steals passwords from unsuspecting Internet users.  On the cover page of his thesis, his professor wrote: “This is illegal!”

This judgment strikes me as odd.  Of theses, we would usually say they are good or bad in a non-moral sense, plagiarisms or original contributions, uninteresting imitations or imaginative applications of existing ideas.  We never say they are legal or illegal, or, for that matter, good or evil.  Had I been Onel de Guzman’s professor, I would not have closed the book on him just like that.  The primary business of a school is not to determine whether a piece of intellectual work is legal or illegal, or good or evil.  Rather, it is to determine in the first instance if it contains anything worthwhile knowing, whether this is about the nature of the world, or of human behavior and systems, or of knowledge itself.

The press quotes De Guzman as saying: “The Internet is educational, and it should be free.” That is a nice quotable line, and it may have been fed to him to give his project some moral justification.  The point however is that knowledge itself is neither good nor evil; it is the specific uses to which it is applied that are.  De Guzman’s intellectual effort may have been driven by a motive to steal passwords.  His professor may have been right to reject the thesis in the form in which it was submitted.  But the knowledge that was mastered and deployed to create the “illegal” program is itself ethically and legally neutral.

The same thesis could have been presented not as a program for filching passwords but as a study in the vulnerability of computer networks to viral and “Trojan horse” attacks.  Instead of an offensive title like “A program to steal passwords”, the thesis could have been described as “A study in the vulnerability of computer systems,” using as an illustration the rough sketch of a program designed for stealing passwords.  The focus could have been not on passwords but on the basic structural weaknesses of existing password systems, and how to remedy such weaknesses.

The point is that a strategy for stealing contains the seeds of a strategy for securing.  There is every reason to believe that Onel de Guzman did not intend to submit a thesis that was born of pure mischief.  To him the project was very likely, more than anything else, a technical challenge.  We cannot always expect young people to have the ability to see their efforts in the light of various ethical perspectives.  It is the duty of professors to spot the positive aspect in what may seem as the work of evil genius.  I think it is part of the mission of any school as a center of wisdom to redirect such genius to positive ends.  Simply labeling a piece of work as illegal or immoral stops short of inquiring into the truth content of the work.

What surprised people everywhere is that the ILOVEYOU virus could be created in a country not known exactly for its computer geniuses. However, most people who know say that though the virus, which vandalizes graphics and music files, pilfers passwords, and reproduces and sends itself to every e-mail address in a computer’s address book, may be the most virulent pathogen ever released in cyberspace, it does not require a very complex mind to create it.

Perhaps it doesn’t take a genius to create a computer virus.  But geniuses or not, I think we cannot ignore the emergence in our midst of a whole generation of young Filipinos who are capable of understanding and creating sophisticated computer logic.  This is the same generation that first got hooked on pirated computer games in the late ‘80s, figuring out their rules without the aid of documentation, and then they moved on to the more advanced stuff.  Computer hacking is still a game for them.  They get their kicks from duplicating and spoiling the expensive software of Bill Gates and his highly paid professional programmers.  They love to show they can do better with less.  But their ultimate high is being able to show they can penetrate the security wall of the computer systems of banks and other highly restricted places.

These are not necessarily criminals in the making.  What they hatch in their minds they seldom execute into actual attempts.  It is the thrill of unlocking the puzzle they basically seek.  They are self-styled artists and warriors who, more often than not, do not have enough money to buy their own computers.  Yet, in the virtual world they have learned to inhabit, they imagine themselves as equal to everyone they encounter in cyberspace.  All the emblems of inferiority which in the past may have suppressed their genius have become irrelevant – how you look, how you speak English, which school you attended, who your parents are, etc.   To them what matters is what you can do on that machine.  No other development in human affairs can be more democratic than this or more conducive to personal emancipation.

We have been passive consumers of technology for too long.  Now, for the first time, we are seeing the work of a generation that insists on actively participating and intervening in the creation of technology. It would be tragic to dismiss the talents of such a generation just because its first inclination has been to create viruses rather than vaccines.


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