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Hacking into the minds of virus writers


In this story:

Hobby or crime

Avoid getting hit


(CNN) -- If you're using a computer, chances are, you're going to get a virus. At the very least, you're going to get a virus warning.

A virus is defined, simply, as a replicating code. Most of us became familiar with names like "Melissa" and the "Love Bug." They taught us that viruses can wreak havoc.

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But did you know many virus writers intend no real harm? And while the most destructive viruses grab our attention, at any given time there are hundreds of known viruses circulating in cyberspace.

So, who is fighting them? Who is writing them? Why? Is there a cure for this epidemic?

Sarah Gordon, a senior research fellow from Symantec and anti-virus researcher, is no stranger to the dark side and to what motivates virus writers. She says that "they do it to identify with a social group, they do it in some cases because they feel they've been provoked by people who say they're stupid, unethical, malicious." Sarah has spent years interviewing, profiling and exchanging ideas with virus writers, and in turn, they talk to her and trust her.

Gordon is an anomaly in the anti-virus industry. Unlike many of her peers, she's female, largely self-taught, and doesn't hesitate to discuss issues of cyber-responsibility with virus writers.

What motivates virus writers?

A former virus writer interviewed by CNN who only wants to be known as Evan, says that writing such codes is interesting to many virus writers, and that it is something they "were just called to do." Evan now has a legitimate job in the IT world and says that the viruses he wrote never did any harm -- he never sent them out, and they weren't executable.

While research shows a lot of virus writers act from boredom, Evan says there are a variety of reasons: "It was some credibility in front of my hacker peers to say, 'hey, I can write a virus and you can't.' There's almost even an aspect of 'make them afraid of you,' albeit, no real threat here, but there was the mystique that 'hey, don't mess with that guy, he'll give you a virus.'"

Hobby or crime

In the United States, writing and distributing viruses is not illegal. In the U.S. and internationally, it is often the designation "malicious intent," which separates the hobby from the crime.

"If I write a virus (and) put it on my Web site for my friends to look at, should that be illegal? It's when you actually take it and use it to do something harmful," Gordon says. "There are not that many people taking them to do something harmful; it's just that the Internet is so widespread that once one virus gets loose, it can spread quickly. It only takes one."

David Smith, author of the infamous "Melissa" virus, is one of the first virus writers ever to be prosecuted under computer crime laws.

"Melissa" hit more than 1 million personal computers in North America, causing more than $80 million in damage. Smith has pleaded guilty to both state and federal charges and is awaiting sentencing.

Another virus, dubbed the "Love Bug," caused billions of dollars in damage worldwide. But even through the person accused of creating it was quickly located in the Philippines, he was not charged. What he did was not illegal in the Philippines at the time he wrote the virus.

Avoid getting hit

Both the virus and the anti-virus communities agree on the best protections against getting hit with a virus. High on their list were user education and making sure users take responsibility for preventing virus attacks.

According to Evan, we trust the computer too much, forgetting that people actually call the shots. "If my computer were to suddenly start exhibiting weird virus-like tendencies...I definitely would bear a certain amount of responsibility for having run that code," he says.

The bottom line is this: As the number of people online grows, outbreaks of infection will grow as well. Gordon cautions that if you're using a computer, you will most likely get hit.

Former virus writer Evan agrees and points out that mass standardization of computers is also a factor.

"In my mind, I see the field of genetically perfect cows," Evan says. "And (the) farmer gets up and comes out in the morning, and all the cows are dead because this virus came in, and there was no diversity in the herd, and they're all dead. And the same thing is happening with corporate desktops."

Evan feels no guilt about his past. Even though he wrote viruses, he never made his virus codes executable, and that, he says, absolves him of any wrongdoing. What does bother him is the current crop of viruses and virus writers.

"They are not sophisticated people and they're not thinking about what they're doing on any more of a macro scale than to say 'ooh I get my name up here. I'll be cool. I'll have notoriety,'" Evan says.

Meanwhile, Sarah Gordon continues to straddle two hostile but different worlds. She says her goal has never been to stop virus writers in their tracks. Still, when even one quits, she breathes a bit easier.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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