February 9, 2004

Linux renegades

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Did you write an email virus and sic it on the world? I didn't think so. I didn't, either. Still, a recent BBC article headlined Linux cyber-battle turns nasty -- along with articles in many other respected publications -- makes it sound like "run-of-the-mill geeks" who use Linux are responsible for the MyDoom virus, instead of pointing out that this is the work of one or two demented individuals, not of "the Linux community." Another point that seems to be getting lost in media coverage of MyDoom and its possible "Linux connection" is that all computer operating systems have zealot-users who think their favorite OS is a religion, and consider anyone who advocates the use of another one a mortal enemy.The BBC article opened with this sentence:

The MyDoom virus has triggered a new wave of attacks on company websites. It is also looks like a new front in a war waged by those who want to preserve the open-source Linux operating system.

I "want to preserve the open-source Linux operating system" as much as anyone, but I don't see that writing and spreading viruses is an effective way to do it. MyDoom clogs my bandwidth and spam filters just as hard as it clogs up a Windows user's pipes. Why in the world would any sane Linux user or advocate want to do something like this to himself or herself, and do it to millions of other Linux users, to "preserve the open-source Linux operating system"?

Isn't this tactic just a wee bit counterproductive?

Okay, fine. SCO's servers are the target of the virus's payload. MyDoom is supposed to be a plot to hurt SCO. But how is it hurting SCO? Nobody is buying their so-called Linux licenses, and they seem to have abandoned their traditional operating system and support business in favor of full-time litigation, so it's not as if keeping people away from SCO's Web site is costing the company any money. If MyDoom is having any effect on SCO, it's a positive one. "Here's this nice, honest little company out in the desert, besieged by Linux criminals," is the thought undoubtedly going through the minds of many who read about MyDoom -- including judges and potential jurors who may end up deciding SCO's future in the courtroom, which is the only venue that's really important to SCO these days.

I don't believe SCO is behind MyDoom, either. A few fringe people may want to enjoy this conspiracy theory, but it makes no sense. Such conspiracies are almost always exposed in the end, and if this one were true, and was revealed, SCO's stock price would collapse and its executives and attorneys wouldn't be able to cash in on their nefarious anti-free software actions.

Every operating system has nut cases among its users

There are many millions of Linux users. There is no sanity test required to install Linux, so it stands to reason that there are at least a few crackpot zealots with virus-writing capability who use Linux. But Linux is not the only operating system that has fringe-mentality users. The Church of Satan openly boasts about using Mac OS (and Apple is not happy about it). Back when international terrorist groups Al-Queda and Hamas had public, English-language Web sites, they ran on Windows and Microsoft's IIS server. Note that no one blames Microsoft for terrorism or blames Apple for Satanists. Well... probably someone does, but that just proves the point that in any group with millions of members, you are bound to have a few people who believe just about anything, up to and including the idea that electricity doesn't exist and there are little people inside computers who put all the words and pictures up on the screen, one at a time.

If you don't think Windows has at least a few zealous, vituperative fans, look at some of the comments attached to this article. And I got email over it just as rude as any nasty comments people get when they write anti-Linux articles, too.

But I don't run around writing articles accusing "'the Windows community" of writing viruses or wreaking havoc on the Internet -- or anywhere else. I often get disgusted with the poor security of Windows -- and even more disgusted with Outlook and Outlook Express -- and the lack of security precautions many Windows users take, because this lack of Windows security is what allows malicious viruses and worms to spread. But I don't think Windows users, as a group, are trying to take down SCO's servers out of hatred or for any other reason. Indeed, I suspect that most Windows users have never even heard of SCO.

One note I'd better put in here: Someone is sure to post a comment on this story (or say in a newsgroup where it is discussed), something like, "Nyuck, nyuck... Windows users are too retarded to write viruses if they wanted to. That's the only reason they don't."

This is not true. There are many intelligent people and competent programmers who use Windows. There are also competent programmers who like Mac OS X. Linux may be your personal choice -- it's certainly mine -- but this doesn't mean anyone who doesn't use Linux is automatically stupid or evil. I have many friends and neighbors who use Windows (and Mac), and they're perfectly nice people.

Grin and bear it

I just took a break from writing to check my email. I had two "real" messages buried in the middle of over 100 pieces of spam and MyDoom junk. MyDoom emails currently outnumber spams in my "junk"' folder. I get far more junk email than most people since I must monitor incoming email for a whole stack of high-profile OSDN Web sites, each with its own set of email aliases. But I am not going to go into a mad rage about evil Linux users who make MyDoom. I may display a little bit of irritation toward people who help spread these viruses through poor software choices and by opening email attachments they shouldn't, but it is the kind of mild irritation I feel toward incompetent drivers, not the anger I see being displayed toward Linux users by BBC writer Stephen Evans in the article I mentioned when I first started writing this story.

Evans wrote:

If anyone's anger has no measure, it is the wrath of internet zealots who believe that code should be free to all (open source).

Somehow, he fails to point out that 99.9999999% of open source supporters -- including 99.999% of those he would probably classify as "zealots" -- have no desire to write viruses, and are their victims just as surely as anyone else.

It's sad that so many writers for mainstream media still maintain the stereotype of Linux developers and users as antisocial teenagers who work as a group to make life miserable for all Internet users.
This simply isn't true. I'm a Linux user, and the most seditious group to which I belong is the AARP.

It would take someone with a double-layered tinfoil hat (no doubt with a "Flying Windows" logo on it) to accuse the AARP of being a Linux-based terrorist group, even though the AARP Web site runs on Linux. But I'm sure, out of the many millions of Windows users in the world, there are a few who could be persuaded to believe this, just as there are almost certainly a few Linux users who believe Microsoft and SCO are evils that should be fought "in the streets" with viruses and other vandalism, instead of sanely, in the courtroom, with lawyers.

Editor's note: A detailed story about virus writers published in the New York Times Magazine over the weekend (free registration required) mentioned only one operating system -- Windows -- and only one programming language -- Visual Basic. None of the virus writers quoted in the article mentioned Linux at all. If they started using Linux, its open nature might lead them to use their talents for socially useful hacking instead of exploiting Windows weaknesses.


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