The enemy within

Our view: A computer virus reflects the complex dangers in a modern world

April 05, 2009

So what if your faithful PC should turn against you? Your Facebook is posting pornography. Your Twitter followers are being urged to advocate for the violent overthrow of the government, and your bank account's online bill pay is transferring large amounts from your savings to total strangers.

Can't happen, you say? Think again. A computer virus called the Conficker worm capable of all of that and more is out there lurking. It has invaded more than 12 million computers around the world and continues to infect more every day. Last week, an army of security experts working to counter Conficker heaved a collective sigh of relief when many of the infected computers successfully executed a command to phone home but the worm took no further action. The problem is, no one knows where home is, who may be at the controls or what their goals may be.

Stefan Savage, a computer scientist at the University of California, San Diego, has suggested the nightmare idea of a "Dark Google." What if Conficker is intended to give the computer underworld the ability to search for data on all the infected computers around the globe and then sell the answers, from state secrets to confidential business plans and countless Social Security and checking account numbers? Then again, the whole thing may be just an elaborate practical joke.

Still, in a moment when so many of life's verities, from job security to retirement and education plans, have been undermined by financial ills with causes opaque and cures uncertain, it shouldn't be surprising that the Internet that has become so important in our lives is so similarly vulnerable.

It's part of a larger lesson. The more complex our institutions, the larger the potential danger that they will fail to function as promised.

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