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Tech Time Warp: The ANIMAL instinct to do good

Tech Time Warp: The ANIMAL instinct to do good

If you have ever dabbled in Dungeons & Dragons, you are familiar with the “alignment system,” which is a way to chart characters’ tendency toward good vs. evil as well as their inclination to follow rules (“lawful” vs. “chaotic”). With the addition of a “neutral” option, Dungeons & Dragons classifies characters as one of nine tendencies, with a “chaotic good” alignment meaning the character has little regard for rules but a strong penchant for good.

Cybersecurity history has much to offer in the way of “chaotic evil,” but some of its most interesting chapters cover the chaotic good. One such example might be the story of John Walker, who in 1975 created one of the earliest computer viruses—one that affected UNIVAC computers. The PERVADE virus spread the game ANIMAL. Similar to 20 Questions, ANIMAL asked a computer user to think of an animal, then answer a series of questions so the program could guess the animal in the user’s mind. The game was popular, and Walker began receiving requests for copies. Instead of sending it out, he created a Trojan-style program called PERVADE that distributed ANIMAL to every system directory.

No harm was caused to the UNIVAC, and instead of being concerned, everyone was mildly amused. But Walker wrote on his website that they were missing the big picture: “I was, at the time, very conscious of the threat a malicious program might have created and frequently, in discussions with other programmers and site managers, used ANIMAL as an example of an easily exploited yet little-perceived vulnerability in a sophisticated operating system which its vendor considered reasonably secure (and was, in fact, far more secure than typical present-day personal computer operating systems). I had hoped that ANIMAL would, in some small way, get people thinking about operating systems in which security was based on a formal model, as opposed to the chewing-gum and baling wire ad hoc, ‘find a hole and plug it’ approach of the vast majority of systems, then and now.”

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Photo: Blackregis / Shutterstock

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