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  • Hacking Away at the Counterculture
  • Andrew Ross

Ever since the viral attack engineered in November of 1988 by Cornell University hacker Robert Morris on the national network system Internet, which includes the Pentagon’s ARPAnet data exchange network, the nation’s high-tech ideologues and spin doctors have been locked in debate, trying to make ethical and economic sense of the event. The virus rapidly infected an estimated six thousand computers around the country, creating a scare that crowned an open season of viral hysteria in the media, in the course of which, according to the Computer Virus Industry Association in Santa Clara, the number of known viruses jumped from seven to thirty during 1988, and from three thousand infections in the first two months of that year to thirty thousand in the last two months. While it caused little in the way of data damage (some richly inflated initial estimates reckoned up to $100m in down time), the ramifications of the Internet virus have helped to generate a moral panic that has all but transformed everyday “computer culture.”

Following the lead of DARPA’s (Defence Advance Research Projects Agency) Computer Emergency Response Team at Carnegie-Mellon University, anti-virus response centers were hastily put in place by government and defence agencies at the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department, NASA, and other sites. Plans were made to introduce a bill in Congress (the Computer Virus Eradication Act, to replace the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which pertained solely to government information), that would call for prison sentences of up to ten years for the “crime” of sophisticated hacking, and numerous government agencies have been involved in a proprietary fight over the creation of a proposed Center for Virus Control, modelled, of course, on Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control, notorious for its failures to respond adequately to the AIDS crisis.

In fact, media commentary on the virus scare has run not so much tongue-in-cheek as hand-in-glove with the rhetoric of AIDS hysteria—the common use of terms like killer virus and epidemic; the focus on hi-risk personal contact (virus infection, for the most part, is spread on personal computers, not mainframes); the obsession with defense, security, and immunity; and the climate of suspicion generated around communitarian acts of sharing. The underlying moral imperative being this: You can’t trust your best friend’s software any more than you can trust his or her bodily fluids—safe software or no software at all! Or, as Dennis Miller put it on Saturday Night Live, “Remember, when you connect with another computer, you’re connecting to every computer that computer has ever connected to.” This playful conceit struck a chord in the popular consciousness, even as it was perpetuated in such sober quarters as the Association for Computing Machinery, the president of which, in a controversial editorial titled “A Hygiene Lesson,” drew comparisons not only with sexually transmitted diseases, but also with a cholera epidemic, and urged attention to “personal systems hygiene.”1 In fact, some computer scientists who studied the symptomatic path of Morris’s virus across Internet have pointed to its uneven effects upon different computer types and operating systems, and concluded that “there is a direct analogy with biological genetic diversity to be made.”2 The epidemiology of biological virus, and especially AIDS, research is being closely studied to help implement computer security plans, and, in these circles, the new witty discourse is laced with references to antigens, white blood cells, vaccinations, metabolic free radicals, and the like.

The form and content of more lurid articles like Time’s infamous (September 1988) story, “Invasion of the Data Snatchers,” fully displayed the continuity of the media scare with those historical fears about bodily invasion, individual and national, that are often considered endemic to the paranoid style of American political culture.3 Indeed, the rhetoric of computer culture, in common with the medical discourse of AIDS research, has fallen in line with the paranoid, strategic style of Defence Department rhetoric. Each language-repertoire is obsessed with hostile threats to bodily and technological immune systems; every event is a ballistic manoeuver in the game of microbiological...