Thursday, May 27, 2010

man 'infects' self with computer virus?

that's pretty much what the story says (read it here) and if it were true (or even possible) then it would be a pretty boneheaded thing to do. and they call this guy "doctor".

but if you haven't figured it out by now, the whole thing is complete rubbish. over 4 years ago a bunch of researchers came up with some less than amazing research that showed that certain RFID tagging systems could be susceptible to compromise by malware stored on RFID tags themselves (which i wrote about here). specifically, the data on the tags could exploit programming flaws in the back-end database the system runs off of. in essence you could write malware (even viruses or worms) that operates in the context of the database, and you could use RFID tags as a storage and distribution medium.

4 years later and another bunch of researchers (including a one dr. mark gasson)  have the (not so) bright idea to stick one of those RFID tags in a person. yeah, that really is all that happened here. that and some effective huckstering get into the media spotlight (if even only for a short while).

it really is quite unspectacular though. dr. gasson took something that supposedly contained a computer virus and then put that inside yet another container (his own body) and then called that container 'infected' as if that's all it took. by the same token i could put one of those tags in a tupperware container and call that 'infected' - and wouldn't that be something; not only 'infecting' something that's inanimate but well and truly inert. what's more, i could take one of these specially prepared RFID tags and put it between two slices of bread and make an 'infected' sandwich. i could even put one in a hole in the ground and 'infect' the planet. clearly this notion of 'infection' by containment is absurd.

but it gets a little more absurd, because dr. gasson claims to be the first. now a very clever commenter over at boingboing pointed out (here) that you get basically the same effect by sticking an infected USB thumb drive in your rectum. while you may consider that to be a juvenile observation to make, his assertion that it constitutes prior art has merit. USB thumb drives are small and portable and easily inserted into a variety of bodily cavities for the purposes of hiding or smuggling data. furthermore, USB thumb drives are notorious for hosting things like autorun worms. as such, with the bizarre "containment == 'infection'" logic being used, it's almost a certainty that dr. gasson was actually not the first human to be 'infected' by a computer virus in this (non)sense, he's simply the first to make a media spectacle of himself over the issue. (one might argue that unlike an RFID tag, a USB thumb drive wouldn't be able to pass on the infection once in your rectum - but it was never specified that the business end couldn't be left sticking out)

i can't discuss this topic without touching upon what i think is (at least partially) to blame for the ridiculous and rather scary statement being made by dr. gasson, though. it's one of my long-standing pet peeves: terminology misuse. you may have noticed my persistent decoration of words related to the word "infect". that's because it's been used in a sense that is so far from an reasonable meaning of the word infect that it doesn't deserve to be treated as a normal word. terminology misuse has become de rigeur to such an extent that even well known anti-malware personalities such as graham cluley and mikko hypponen endorse it for some terms. you can argue about natural semantic drift of words over time until you're blue in the face but technical jargon is not (and should not be) subject to the whim and whimsy of the unwashed masses (even when it comes to subjects that affect them). this particular instance of sensational absurdity is a consequence of and an argument against unfettered semantic drift in the realm of technical jargon. in no reasonable sense of the word was this person ever infected by a computer virus. absurd statements like the one the researcher is making are only possible because of slightly less absurd statements made before it that haven't been corrected yet, which in turn can eventually be traced back to basic terminology misuse.


Peachy said...

Haha great QQ.
I must admit that, when seeing the title on my reader. We were on the brink of androids taking over the world because of some rouge code

Jon Fischer said...

What a crock. I guess we are supposed to think that this posed some type of real danger to the good doctor. Or possibly panic us future then our government has been doing for the last few years. who in there right mind puts a chip in there body let alone inserts a virus into it. next the doctor will be removing limbs and be replacing them with computerized mechanical ones to see if they can get a virus too. please stop the insanity!