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Monocultures and viruses

November 11, 2003

A public radio commentary

Lately our nation's computer networks have been attacked by virus after virus. While they aren't new - the first computer virus appeared in 1979 - they have increased in their ferocity and their frequency. Why so many attacks now? The reason we have so many computer viruses now is their similarly to biological viruses. In our bodies a virus replicates itself, battling our immune system. Exactly the same thing happens in a computer: The virus, which is a kind of computer program, tells the computer to make millions of copies of the virus, until the computer grinds to a halt. So occupied is the computer with this copying that no word processing, or checking of email can be done. These virus arrive at your computer in many ways. They often come through e-mail, especially as attachments. And that highlights the problem of why we have such a large spread of viruses right now.

Our computers exists in what a biologist would call a monoculture. That's where a single organism dominates an ecosystem. For example, there are managed forests grown for timber that contain the same type of tree. These monocultures are very sensitive to attack: A disease that can wipe out one tree, can attack the whole forest. In contrast, in a ecological area that contained many species of trees, this wouldn't happen, there would be no immediate host for a virus to jump to because the tree next to an infected one might be of a completely different species that is impervious to the virus.

In exactly the same way our computer culture is largely monocultural: The dominate operating system is Microsoft windows. This is like a forest of identical trees: Develop a virus that infects Windows and you have lots of hosts to pass it to. This isn't to say there is a problem with Microsoft products: If we had a monoculture of macs, for example, it would be prone to the same problem. As the dominance of a single operating system continues, we can expect the virus attacks to increase.

Right now computer viruses seem like a nuisance, but the reality is more chilling. So far they've forced a shutdown of the New York Times newsroom, stopped the computer that routes trucks for a large east coast freight company, and halted Air Canada's reservation computer network. But these seem benign compared to the most chilling example.

A computer virus infected the safety monitoring systems of the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in Ohio. Once inside, the virus quickly spread, shutting down all of the computerized displays which monitor vital safety indicators such as reactor temperatures, radiation sensors and coolant systems. It was lucky escape, the plant was off-line because of repairs, but the implications of this computer virus infection are terrifying.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises