The dark side of creativity

People have strange ways of expressing their love. Take the recent outburst of love on the Internet. Loads of people got lots of love. And a virus. We all know that an excess of anything can be bad. Even love. "I Love You" confirmed it. I didn't receive a single love-note. After the initial depression wore off (no one loves me!), this was one time when I was glad to be unlucky in love.

People have strange ways of expressing their love. Take the recent outburst of love on the Internet. Loads of people got lots of love. And a virus. We all know that an excess of anything can be bad. Even love. "I Love You" confirmed it. I didn't receive a single love-note. After the initial depression wore off (no one loves me!), this was one time when I was glad to be unlucky in love.

What's the big idea?
Seriously though, casting humor and love aside for the moment, what brings forth the darker side of creativity in a human being? What prompts a virus writer to create a malicious piece of code? Or a cracker to deface a website? Or to tap an online transaction?

Fanatical beliefs could very well be the motivation for defacing a website. So could financial rewards. Siphoning away a tiny, almost unnoticeable percentage of an online transaction would be a very tempting way to make quick money. I could understand that. However, for someone to create and release something like the love-bug? If I were a shrink, I may have speculated on the possibilities of an unhappy childhood. And other similar stuff. But I'm not a shrink. I'm just another netizen. And so I wonder, why?

However, I do have a formal background in software technology. To give you some perspective, I'm an Internet specialist (whatever that means), and have been on the Net for more than 10 years now. I have dabbled with the internals of communication software, email, websites and security related stuff, amongst other things. And I think I may have a hypothesis here.

It's a power trip
It's probably something to do with thrill. And power. Who would not enjoy these? I think I can attest to it. To share that with you, I invite you to accompany me on a short trip down memory lane. I wrote my first Trojan-horse program while doing my post-graduation in software technology. It was a program that emulated the login screen of our mainframe computers. And I unleashed it in my lab. Discreetly, of course. Within a very short span of time, I had a reasonable collection of usernames and passwords as fellow students fell prey to my program. Which also meant that I knew the names of a lot of their girlfriends or at least the girls they wished for girlfriends. Information is power and this felt good.

However, I soon got bored of this simplistic achievement. No one but me knew about what I knew. I now craved for a rush of a higher order. So the next logical thing to do was to use my newfound power to play some pranks. I picked a few victims, logged into their accounts using their login ID and password and added some zest to their start-up scripts. The result was that whenever they logged into the system, they got some mysterious mail from themselves - the contents of which chided them for sending mail to themselves. That was hilarious. The exclamations of surprise when they logged in should have been recorded. The conversations that these mysterious occurrences sparked during our lunch hours were thoroughly enjoyable. Not for them, but for me!

Power and thrill. That was fun. But you know what? I never really abused the power. I didn't read anyone's mail. Or tamper with their work area. Or delete their files. Why not? I don't know. Maybe I had a happy childhood. Thank God. What I knew for sure was that doing anything more just would not be right. That would be crossing the line.

Cheap publicity stunt
Back to the present. Recalling these events of the past is what leads me to propose the "power and thrill hypothesis". The power of one-upmanship. The thrill of being the talk of the Net. Likely reasons for the actions of virus writers. I think that the P&T hypothesis helps, but it still does not make the "virus-writing phenomena" completely understandable. We know that the media highlights the exploits of the virus author. Will he or she ever be able to bask in that light? Openly? No. Then the thrill is really short lived. Assuming that the author is not identified and caught, he or she will seek a thrill of a higher order. And thus probably begins a vicious cycle. I wonder if the authors ever realize what their thrill seeking tactics do to real life people? The heartbreak of the lady who lost her complete collection of poems that were about to be published in book form? The agony of the post-graduate student who lost his entire Ph.D. thesis?

Both of these were people like you and me - who suffered because of the Melissa virus. What about the countless messages that got delayed by email systems shut down to prevent the spread of the love bug? The billions of dollars of lost revenue for organizations? The plain inconvenience caused to people? I wish that this cycle could be broken by a dose of conscience. If only it were that simple.

Crackers are the reason for the existence of organizations specializing is security and anti-virus products, providing for the livelihood of their numerous employees. And for the chain of organizations who sell and support these products and services. And that is the best that can be said in the defense of the cracker. For you and me, this breed (of gifted but misguided individuals) injects a dose of reality into our virtual existence. To remind us that just as technology can be used for good, so it can be used for bad. There is a dark side to creativity.