On Feb. 1, someone known as “Bayneko” distributed an unsolicited COVID-themed NFT via airdrop on the blockchain platform Tezos. Airdropping crypto is a bit like Apple’s Bluetooth Airdrop function, but crypto airdrops don’t rely on proximity and cannot be refused. People who buy into crypto and NFTs have come to expect that they will receive bonus content via airdop. It’s more like flyers, junk mail, and coupons than snapshots transferred to your phone by a friend. Bayneko claims to have distributed 10 variants of the SARS-CoV-2 NFT “in what is the largest JPEG drop in the history of blockchains,” reaching almost 100,000 wallets.
Like most people, we are exhausted with crypto and NFT discourse. We have yet to see an NFT artwork that didn’t look like a gas station display for novelty sunglasses, but somehow greasier? We are also historians of computing who have spent much of the past decade writing about the relationship between biological viruses, epidemics, and our everyday engagements with technology. For us, the COVID NFT isn’t an innovation but rather another case of the deeply familiar, and troubling, practice of coupling digital networks and biological viruses. But by looking closer at this coupling, we can also see the uneven exposure, harm, and susceptibility to abuse that comes along with network technology.
Both Bayneko and many of the people who received the COVID NFT consider it a creative provocation, even an artwork. Others are irritated, put off by the coercive virality of this project and the spammy, potentially abusive practice it relies on. But in the days following the airdrop, Bayneko doubled down, suggesting that those with the COVID NFT might aim to collect all of the different variants to “increase your viral load.” And on Feb. 7, Bayneko rewarded those who had collected and held all ten variants with a second airdropped NFT jpeg called FEVERDREAM.
In one of the more jarring, if regrettably emblematic, comparisons of our time, Bayneko writes, “The blockchain is more resilient than the human body and allows recipients to cure themselves by burning the disease or infect others by transferring the token.” Indeed, holders of the NFT would seem to be left with the option of ignoring it, deleting (“burning”) it, or giving it to (“infecting”) others. The equivalence between the blockchain and COVID might be unpleasant, but in terms of the history of computing these metaphors are well established.
The first computer viruses began to spread in the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s, as personal computing was gaining traction and more people were networking their hardware. This also happened to be the peak of the AIDS crisis in the United States and Western Europe, a coincidence that did not go unnoticed by that generation’s Baynekos. Many of the earliest computer viruses were modeled on or specifically referenced HIV and AIDS. One computer virus in 1990 took over a user’s system, announcing above a giant ASCII image of the word “AIDS” that the user had (sic) “PHUCKED” themselves over and ended by saying, “remember, there is NO cure for AIDS.” Another virus, CyberAIDS, dating from the mid-1980s, was one of the earliest to affect Apple users. And in 1989, while debating computer virus legislation, US Representative Wally Hager referred to an attack on ARPANET (the predecessor to our internet) as “the AIDS of the computer world.”
Some malware invoked AIDS at a surface level, as a metaphor about networks and vulnerability, but one took this further, targeting communities of people working to end the AIDS crisis. One of the first recognized cases of ransomware was the “AIDS information diskette.” It was created by a primatologist with a PhD from Harvard, Joseph Popp, reportedly because he was angry the World Health Organization had turned him down for a job. Popp mailed thousands of unsolicited floppy disks labelled “AIDS Information—an Introductory Diskette Version 2.0” to AIDS service organizations, HIV health researchers, subscribers to PC Business World, and workers at the U.S. National Institutes for Health.
Anyone who installed the diskette and ran its program, AIDS.EXE, was asked a series of questions about their lifestyle and sex life, before getting cynical advice: “buy condoms today when you leave your office” or “danger: reduce the number of your sex partners now!” We can only imagine that the people who thought that the disk was legitimate, many of whom worked in AIDS research or service, were confused by the results. Little did they know that by running AIDS.EXE, they had installed a program that would later seize their hard drive and demand a ransom be sent to “PC Cyborg Corp” in Panama City.
While the anti-virus community moved to respond, they were also taken aback that the disk wasn’t just about AIDS, but to their eyes, worked on a user’s C drive the way HIV worked on a person’s body. As Paul Mungo and Bryan Clough write in their contemporary account of hackers and phreaks, Approaching Zero, cybersecurity expert Jim Bates wrote an antidote program called AIDSOUT and was struck by the apparent similarities between the biological and computer viruses: “Both slowly, insidiously, infected the victim’s immune systems; both were patient; both were ultimately fatal to their hosts.” Just as Bayneko compares the resilience of the blockchain to that of human beings, these experts were seeing HIV and computer attacks reflected and refracted in each other.
Comparisons between AIDS and COVID have been made far too often, and too readily over the last two years. They obscure the fundamental differences between these pandemics, but they are also unsurprising. We have limited, indeed crude, concepts for understanding what it means to be connected—by data, wires, air, blood, and fluids. We are desperate to give meaning to this time, to find a precedent, a metaphor, or an analogy that would give us some sense of control over our surroundings.
But looked at more broadly, viral analogies can clarify the toxic dynamics that sometimes surround NFTs. Structurally, airdropping creates a vulnerability in what’s often praised as a robust system. In a recent post about “Abuse and harassment on the blockchain,” software developer Molly White made a prescient observation: “there is nothing stopping someone from airdropping NFTs with abusive content—doxing, revenge porn, child sexual abuse imagery, threats, etc.—into someone’s wallet.”
And while crypto itself may not put us at risk of biological infection, it is instrumental in the growing number of ransomware attacks on hospitals. “The Ransomware Problem Is a Bitcoin Problem,” computer security researcher Nicholas Weaver argues, stating that the anonymity and lack of oversight of crypto markets, make cryptocurrency especially useful for ransom payment. Last year, Duke Law School’s Lee Reiners argued we should ban cryptocurrency if only to fight back against the rise of ransomware attacks. What started with the AIDS Information Diskette has wound its way to crypto, though not because of any actual connection between viruses.
A virus is not, like an NFT, a commodity. But there is something that the airdrop COVID NFT shares with COVID in how it exposes our shared vulnerability. When someone sneezes on a bus, we are now immediately aware of the air around us and the dangers it may carry. Likewise, unwilling receipt of the COVID NFT via seemingly playful airdrop can be a prompt toward new modes of critique and refusal. The COVID NFT highlights the brittleness of the wider crypto community—and its susceptibility to the same forms of abuse and mistreatment that pervade social media and demand actual care and trust in our networks.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.