Tracking the seeds of destruction

Friday, 16 January 2004, 12:18 AM EST

Their idea was inspired by parallels that scientists are drawing between the proliferation of computer viruses and the spread of agricultural catastrophes such as Dutch Elm Disease, which has devastated a small variety of American elms since crossing the Atlantic decades ago. Like Dutch Elm, MSBlast was a single foreign entity that infected extremely susceptible hosts of an entire population--in this case, of Windows computers.

"People have brought over species that we didn't expect here, just like people have created viruses that Microsoft didn't expect to deal with," said Jeff Dukes, professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, who studies diversity and growth in ecological systems. "These introduced species have had a major impact on our forest and have knocked out entire species."

Computer security experts see similarities between the way a disease can devastate agricultural crops and the way a virus can attack Internet infrastructure. The reliance on one type of technology, software or protocol has created digital "monocultures," a phrase borrowed from botany that refers to ecosystems vulnerable to disastrous harm from a single disease.

By Robert Lemos at ZDNet.

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