The Earthling

Vigilante Viruses

Several weeks ago, in the wake of the “love bug” computer virus, I invited readers to send in ideas for “smart” computer viruses. These are viruses that, like laser-guided missiles, would wreak havoc in a discerning fashion. Their subject headings would fool particular categories of people into opening the destructive attachments—people who, in the view of the virus designer, would deserve what they then got.

When I issued this invitation, I expected to get only a handful of replies. But I am happy to report that I greatly underestimated the virulence of Slate readers. Scores of them wrote in, and they had clear ideas about what groups of people most deserve to have their hard drives decimated. Before awarding the trophy for best virus, let me briefly summarize the categories of evil that Slate’s readers are most intent on addressing.

Internet jokesters. One suggested subject heading: “thanx for all those great internet jokes you keep sending me”—along with the message, “I’ve finally found a way to give back” and a clickable attachment. Another reader outlined a high-tech virus that would scan a computer for e-mail distribution lists with the term “joke” or “humor” in their title and then take action that was too complex for me to understand.

Spammers. Suggested bait: “purchase over 10,000 e-mail addresses for $10” or “New technology allows your business to send its advertising to millions over the Web.”

Pedophilesand porn enthusiasts in general. Many readers suggested viruses with subject headings such as “Nude children” and “XXXteenlesboactionHOTHOT!” Some readers included graphic details about how such viruses could render justice. In one scenario, “a virus that would disable the BIOS and require the user to bring the computer in [to the repair shop] would enable us to find all the pedophiles out there on the net.” Another reader suggested that, once porn enthusiasts clicked on the e-mail attachment, the virus would be sent to everyone in their e-mail address books, “so that EVERYONE on their list KNOWS they OPENED PORNO SPAM looking to get off on it! Their mother, their sister, their minister, their boss, all realize that they HAD to have opened the porno solicitation or they would not be now receiving the forwarded virus. Oh, yeah. I like that idea. … Too bad I have no actual hacking skills.” (Don’t worry: Some people are engineers and some are visionaries.)

Jealous males. One suggested subject heading: “I saw your wife with another man.” The accompanying message: “I am sorry to have to send this to you but I saw your wife making love to another man. I took a picture to prove it to you. If you do not want to see the picture, just delete this message. If you do, click here to see it.” Another suggested heading: “Who is the father? Private DNA profiling from GeneSystems Corp.”

Right-wingers. Some suggested headings: “Help Put Ronald Reagan on Mt. Rushmore,” “Trilateral Commission Adulterates Apples,” “Proof That Clinton Killed Foster,” and “Secret Service Photo of Monica Ministering to Clinton.” (The sponsor of that last idea said it would target “hypocritical conservatives … who are excited to see suggestive e-mail,” but I suspect it would have bipartisan appeal.) One reader nominated a virus with the tease “Join the NRA Today!” and a pointed tagline: After doing its damage, it would inform the victim that “I’m just exercising my right to bear the arms of the new millennium.”

Left-wingers. By a ratio of about 2-1, Slate readers were more inclined to punish conservatives than liberals. But what lefty-haters lacked in quantity they made up for in intensity and creativity: “The pinhead liberals …want to disarm the citizens and deprive them of a guaranteed civil right. And being liberals, they have naturally not thought about the consequences thereof. So, write a virus that searches the home money management programs for contributions to recognized liberal causes and organizations like Handgun Control, Inc. If one is found, the e-mail address gets routed to sites known to be visited by criminals. The criminals can then download the e-mail addresses and run them thru an e-mail criss-cross directory to locate the street address of the pinheaded liberals. Knowing that they don’t own firearms, they can then burgle the homes with confidence that they will not be shot in the process.” (Why didn’t I think of that?)

Among the other types of people Slate’s readers would bring to justice: cheaters (“A friend of a friend said you wanted the answers to the homework”), criminals (“There IS a way to fool the IRS”), nosy people (“A dirty secret about your neighbor!”), the unhygienic (“WARNING: Health threat to those who don’t wash their hands upon leaving the restroom”), and tight-fisted drinkers (“Free beer”). Several readers singled out the greedy (e.g., “Free Money Fast”), and one reader specifically targeted “greedy dot-com kiddies” with the subject heading, “Your revised options agreement.” One reader considered parents worthy of punishment: The subject heading “safety warning” would be designed “to punish parents for having children and forcing duplicates of themselves on the world.”

I thank the conceivers of all of the above viruses for working to spur the advance of jurisprudence technology. However, the “best virus” trophy goes to two readers who focused their wrath on an undeniably wrath-worthy group. A reader named Ray Broadbent/Champion (or a Champion named Ray Broadbent—I wasn’t sure) suggested the subject heading “Who’s Who of American Journalists” and the message, “You have been nominated by the Committee of Excellence of Who’s Who of American Journalists to appear in the 2000-2001 issue. Please complete the attached information package and forward same to the address enclosed.” Another reader, Bob Tobias, suggested the subject heading, “I loved your article.” Hey, thanks, man.