A historical cure for viruses

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos says the Battle of Waterloo holds a lesson in communications for a world weary of computer viruses.

Michael Kanellos
Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
3 min read
A world weary of computer viruses needs to take a tip from Nathan Rothschild.

Like other financial institutions in the summer of 1815, the House of Rothschild--owned by the London businessman's family--realized that its future depended on the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo. Holding bonds from the winning side guaranteed success; holding the debt of the losers meant ruin.

The difference between the Rothschilds and everyone else, however, was that the family had built and honed its own rapid courier system. When it became clear that Napoleon was facing defeat, the company's encrypted messages began to wing their way from the battlefield in Belgium to London, reaching Rothschild on June 18, 1815--beating the official courier.

Armed with this knowledge, the financier began selling British bonds. The value of British notes plummeted, while French bonds, which Rothschild was selling through agents, began to rise. Secretly, the company then began sweeping up British securities at rock-bottom prices.

Within three days, the Rothschilds controlled the financial fate of nations.

The lesson for today's computer user, of course, is that the health of communications networks can't be ignored or left to others. (The Waterloo windfall also demonstrates the riches that can be had through insider trading, but, as alleged insider-trader Martha Stewart has discovered, the practice is now frowned upon.)

When looking at the problems and headaches caused by the recent rash of worms and viruses, the extent to which the damage was preventable remains astounding. Microsoft released a patch for the MSBlast worm weeks before it arrived. The worm spread, however, because many people and businesses neglected to apply the fix or to sign up for an automatic update service.

Some security experts have blamed Microsoft for releasing buggy code in the first place. It's a valid point. But even if all code were clean, that would be unlikely to solve the problem. Software is created by people and will always be prone to human error--which some teenager, somewhere on the globe, will then exploit. As vandalism goes, bringing the global communications network to a grinding halt is a lot more fun to brag about than making frozen burritos explode in a convenience store microwave.

Legal penalties don't seem to be much of a deterrent--because it's difficult for law authorities to catch worm writers, many makers of malicious code doubt they'll get caught.

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Jeffrey Lee Parson, who allegedly released a minor variant of the worm called MSBlast.B, may have been nabbed and may now face jail time--but don't expect to see a lot of this in the future. Parson, who has been allowed to return to high school while his trial is being prepared, allegedly inserted his name into the virus code--the equivalent of leaving your wallet at the site of a bank robbery.

Some security experts believe that professional criminals are behind the Sobig virus. But even if a virus is written by amateurs who have scarcely completed high school, they may not make the same mistake as Parson.

In the end, corporations and individuals are simply going to have to dedicate more time and resources to keeping their own avenues of communication free from interference and spend less time griping about lost productivity or the scandalous acts of miscreants. Encryption and intrusion detection systems will have to be installed. Virus updates, moreover, need to be set up to occur automatically or at least be handled by a central information technology staff, not individuals. IT employment, in all likelihood, will have to rise.

It's that--or risk another Waterloo.