OS/2 eZine

16 June 2000

Author: Roberto F. Salomon.

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Guest Editorial: Back to Diversity

An extremely successful predator, the African Cheetah has become a victim of its own success. Occupying a niche and remaining unchallenged by rivals over a prolonged period of time, the Cheetah population has become so genetically homogeneous that it is at risk of becoming extinct.

It is a known fact that genetically homogeneous populations tend to be more fragile than those where a greater diversity is present. Genetically diverse populations adapt more readily to changes in the environment and are more resistant, as a population, to diseases and other threats. On the other hand, genetically homogeneous populations tend to either disappear or to remain confined to areas where their own fragility is not challenged.

Human activity also obeys this rule. The more diverse the economy of a region the better the chances of its survival. The more specialized the economy of an area, the greater the risk of it being wiped out by a change in the economy.

The more widespread the Internet and computers become, the more their interaction resembles an ecosystem. There are new types (species?) of users being "bred" continuously and interacting within the ecosystem presented by the Internet. 95% of those users share one common trait, or "genome", the Windows operating system. It should not be surprising that in such an environment new "diseases" (in our case, computer viruses), are able to spread like wildfire.

Let's take the three latest e-mail "viruses", Melissa, the Love Bug and it's latest variation, the Loveletter/A. These three viruses exploit the same flaws in the operating system and mailer program. The ability to execute instructions and collect information regardless of the user's authorization. As with their biological counterparts, they hijack the host's command center and use it to generate copies of themselves in order to infect other hosts. Unlike their biological counterparts, there is no immune system capable of recognizing and defeating the infection. Anti-virus programs are more like antibiotics rather than immune systems in the sense that they are better used to cure known infections than to prevent new ones.

In another similarity to biological viruses, the three e-mail viruses mentioned are highly specialized parasites. They only affect one very specific type of host and are unable to infect hosts that are not using Microsoft's Windows operating system and are not able to spread to other systems if their host is not using Microsoft's Outlook mail program.

I am one of those 5% (yes we do exist) who are not running Windows on their machines. Even more, I haven't received any e-mail with the I LOVE YOU subject line or with an attachment consisting of a Visual Basic script. Either a) no one has my e-mail address on their Outlook address books (since it is so easy to memorize), b) I do not correspond electronically with any Windows/Outlook user (doubtful) or c) no one loves me (hopefully not).

Regardless of the reason, I was able to continue with business as usual despite the news of "the most devastating e-mail virus yet released". Being different was my best defense and I have news of friends who use Windows, were infected but did not propagate the virus. They just happened to use Netscape, Eudora or PM-Mail as their e-mail programs and not Outlook. This small degree of difference was enough to stop the virus from spreading from their machines to others over the Internet although it did not prevent damage from being done to their files.

Biological viruses tend to establish an equilibrium with their hosts. Immune systems keep the viruses in constant check and viruses constantly mutate in order to survive. Sometimes the viruses do not reach such an equilibrium and become so virulent that they wipe out the entire population of available hosts, destroying themselves in the process. Computer viruses appear to fall into this second category. Being man-made, they are unable to adapt in order to reach an equilibrium with their environment. Unless stopped, they will attempt to kill the host, killing themselves in the process. This is where biological and electronic viruses differ. Life forms aim towards their preservation and are successful to the point where they establish an equilibrium with their hosts and environment. Computer viruses are sequences of code unable to change their behavior and therefore unable to reach an equilibrium with their hosts.

In both cases, however, variety is protection. The more diverse the types of hosts, the smaller the chances of a widespread epidemic. Some individuals may fall ill, and for those, medication should be made available. For the species as a whole, survival will be guaranteed. We are starting to thrive in a new and still mostly unknown ecosystem, the Internet. We still have much to learn and to adapt and the only guarantee that we will be able to do so is to promote diversity.

As I said, I don't use Windows, I am an OS/2 user, and even so I am able to "surf the web", chat and exchange e-mail with people that use Windows, Linux, BeOS, MacOS, and so many other operating systems it would take a long list to mention them all.

There is a whole world outside Windows. A world that although not immune to viruses and other types of attacks proves to be much more resistant in its variety than the homogeneous world presented by Microsoft.