Computer Virus Hoaxes: Urban Legends for the Digital Age
Issue #37, March 1998
Implicit in the rhetoric of the "Information Superhighway" is the understanding that through this technology, individuals will better understand the world around them, establishing a stronger sense of community through open dialogue. An examination of folktales and urban legends on the Internet, however, suggests that, if anything, this technology is becoming increasingly mythologized and is leading to a new sense of domestic alienation. In the years since Carl Lindahl noted that "turning to modern legends that address ... technology, we find relatively few which present evidence of the otherworld," new technologies have emerged to form that missing otherworld. Chief among these technologies has been the explosion of the Internet, giving some users a new sense of community based upon a shared 'reality' empowered by technology.
Not surprisingly, the online community has created its own set of myths, often telling of unknown persons and unusual events. These stories have also come to include a new kind of supernatural anti-hero: the unknown and unknowable hacker, who makes his home among the silicon and binaries of this new otherworld. Stories of this character's powers circulate in abundance, forwarded from one person to the next through e-mail and newsgroups. These stories represent a new breed of legend, one which combines the traditional folktale with the style and contemporary nature of urban legends to form a new version of both, something that might best be described as an electronic legend or e-legend. Virus hoaxes are perhaps the most noticeable form of the hacker e-legend. They are terrifying stories, which warn against imaginary and often technically impossible viruses created by hackers. Often, virus hoaxes are "reports" about viruses which are allegedly spreading across the Internet, generally through e-mail, and they are often considered true by many unwitting Internet users.
As part of any investigation into folktales and legends, it is necessary to identify the community for whom these stories provide some means of information transmission. In the case of e-legends, the community in question is the 'wired community' collectively known as the Internet. From its origins in academic and defense department computing, the Internet has gradually come to affect almost every aspect of modern life, from how we gather and arrange information, to where we go to buy a new car. In this community, information of common interest is transmitted from user to user with the help of several 'information mediums' such as e-mail, IRC (a form of real time chat), news groups and websites.
Virus hoaxes thrive in a community for whom the threat of virus infection is a genuinely frightening possibility. Although they rarely do the amount of damage that hoaxes suggest, computer viruses do spread online and are, in fact, capable of destroying vast quantities of information. Some of the most common variations of virus hoaxes are known by the titles "Good Times," "Pen pal," "Deeyenda" and "Death69." These sorts of hoaxes warn against viruses that do the impossible, such as spread merely by the transmission of e-mail ("Good Times," "Pen pal," "Deeyenda" and "Death69" all claim this feature). "Death69" claims that its virus is capable of "physically eat[ing] at the materials of the [hard]drive" (a variation on this theme is also found in the "Pen Pal" hoax). The assertion that these viruses can do the impossible and the common belief that they are the creation of hackers has elevated both hackers and viruses to an otherworldly status. Viruses act as the spells cast by mythical hackers.
The "Good Times" virus hoax, dated back to November 15, 1994, is frequently considered the grandfather of email virus hoaxes. It has also undergone the most changes during its lifetime. In its original draft, known as the "FYI version," the person who forwarded the message includes the simple statement, "I understand that there is a virus included in x-named file, which if downloaded to your personal computer, will ruin all of your files." With this version of the "Good Times" hoax, the author doesn't claim to have any definite proof and appears to be passing it along 'just to be safe.' While many people might assume that legends will experience only limited change in an environment where people are just re-mailing and re-posting the same message, "Good Times" has proven this assumption to be false. Within three weeks (dated back to Dec. 2, 1994) of the "FYI" version, the "Happy Chanukah" version appeared. Two things are most notable in this version: first, it expresses no doubt about the virus's existence, and second, the myth that the virus is part of a file has been replaced with the myth that the virus is the actual message itself. The FYI version's statement of "I understand that there is a virus included in that file, which if downloaded to your personal computer, will ruin all of your files" is mild in comparison with Happy Chanukah's warning that "If you get anything called 'Good Times', DON'T read it or download it. It is a virus that will erase your hard drive. Forward this to all your friends. It may help them a lot." The threat is no longer just a file, but now the words themselves. Additionally, the Happy Chanukah version also asks the receiver to rebroadcast the message in order to protect others.
Not long after the Happy Chanukah version of Good Times appeared, the most persistent version of this hoax also appeared, the ASCII version, along with its common variation, FCC or Infinite Loop. In the ACSII version of the "Good Times" hoax, the e-legend includes two new characters in the warning, the Federal Communications Commission and, more importantly, an unnamed AOL user who 'engineered' this 'virus.' In the FCC/Infinite Loop variations of "Good Times" the message begins with the statement that, "The FCC released a warning...concerning a matter of major importance to any regular user of the InterNet." The assertion that the warning has come from the FCC lends the hoax to frequent revivals, apparently because users seem to feel that something quoted from a government agency must have some basis in fact. The FCC variation goes on to say that the virus was "engineered by a user of America Online [and] is unparalleled in its destructive capability." This warning elevates the status of the Good Times creator to almost god-like proportions. While the warning doesn't go so far as to claim the creator was a hacker, many people would infer this from a common misconception, itself an e-myth, which stipulates that all viruses are written by hackers. Bob Rosenberger addresses this on a web page called MYTH: 'teenage hackers write most of the viruses out there'. The FCC variation of the "Good Times" hoax, which couples hacker mythology and government sanction, encourages users to view the hacker as a possessor of supernatural powers.
Another lesser-known virus hoax that also draws upon the figure of the hacker as a supernatural figure is "Death69". The author of this hoax claims that "the virus is full stealth and Trojan, once thought never possible." Essentially, the author is claiming that the virus' creator has managed to transcend the limitations of all known computer programs. The hacker gets situated in the otherworld. His or her otherworldliness is reinforced when the author goes on to explain how the virus "first formats the hard drive, then it physically eats at the materials of the drive." The premise of a virus such as "Death69" which has the power to "physically [eat] at the materials of the drive" taps into common fears of foreign invasions into and destruction of the user's private property. This hoax suggests that the hacker's code, itself just a series of 1's and 0's, is able to physically manifest itself as an entity — not just in the 'otherworld' of the Internet, but in the world of our domestic lives.
As computers grow more crucial to daily life, in other words, they become increasingly endowed with super-myths and legends. Perhaps because most ordinary users don't understand their computers, they turn to superstition and mythology to explain them. Claims that viruses can do the impossible prey upon the ignorance of users and figure the computer as a liminal zone through which supernatural characters of the otherworld (hackers, crackers and malicious coders) can trespass upon the user's personal domain. Viruses, at least of the hoax variety, turn this domain into a portal through which hackers can pass, destroying the user's interaction with her online community. Thus hackers, already seen as a threat to the world of computers, are instilled with the additional power to disrupt community stability and organization. In identifying the computer as a liminal zone, it is important to remember that it represents the area between this world and the otherworld, thus suggesting a geographic distinction between 'our world' and an imaginary online community. In the case of virus hoaxes, computers provide the distinction between worlds, because it is only through the use of the computer that users can access the otherworld. It is a reliance upon computers which leads to the vilification of hackers as a threat to the wired community. Without the need for computers to act as information conduits and 'magical' communities, the virus hoax, and by extension the hacker, would be rendered powerless.
It's important to remember that the term 'computer virus' is a direct reference to human viruses, and therefore evokes a sense of human vulnerability. This sense of vulnerability, then, can be connected to the way viruses are perceived as a physical threat to the individual members of the wired community. In the threat of violence against the property of the average computer user there is another sign of the traditional folktale: as Max Lüthi puts it, "all changes of form come about with mechanical abruptness." The "mechanical abruptness" of the folktale is apparent in the last lines of "Good Times" which claim "most novice computer users will not realize what is happening until it is far too late." Likewise, the "Death69" hoax claims that "researchers are stunned, they say it is probably the most destructive virus ever created." The threat of physical harm is also present in many urban legends, which tend to be violent. Perhaps the social changes which have followed the Internet explosion, themselves quite abrupt, have lead to stories which suggest near-apocalyptic scenarios in which innocent users find themselves suddenly at the mercy of forces beyond their control.
Despite their similarities to folktales, there can be little doubt that computer virus hoaxes are urban legends spread to warn users of the dangers 'out there.' According to Lindahl, urban technology is a threat because it makes "home life increasingly reliant on sources beyond its control." Hoaxes, as a subset of the technology legend, reveal a sense of vulnerability upon the part of the computer user, a feeling that while technology can be good, it also holds the potential for misuse and threat. This impending threat is apparent when computer users forward a copy of "Death69" to all their friends, and post these messages to news groups in the belief that they are performing a public service by warning other users of the danger they face. Virus myths also reveal how new modes of production and communication always seem to lead to new kinds of mythologizing. The effect of re-broadcasting these virus threat messages through the Internet presents a paradoxical doubling. While the e-mail messages may contain methods of destruction as implied by virus myths, the messages could also potentially be a means of salvation, saving 'potential victims' from danger.