Lessons from the Laboratory

Monday, 6 January 2003, 3:02 PM EST

Comparisons between computer viruses and their biological namesake constitute a pillar of almost mystical lore, a foundation of the modern anti-virus industry. One of the first books to enjoy mass circulation on the subject was entitled "Computer Viruses -- A High Tech Disease," penned by an unsuccessful anti-virus developer who didn't do his professional reputation any favors by also writing the things.

The metaphor has enabled a simplified public understanding of the problem posed by computer viruses and lent a useful naming convention to anti-virus programs like FluShot, PCRx, PC-Cillin and Disinfectant. But the comparison, while helpful to a point, has proven inadequate in inspiring technical solutions. While every warm-blooded living thing has an immune system for fighting invaders, and science shows itself capable of regularly fashioning some viral cures that stick, silicon immunology -- despite outbursts of unwarranted ebullience -- remains only awkwardly workable.

Smallpox, for instance, illustrates some woeful paradoxes between the wars against infectious and electronic disease.

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