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Hackers, viruses and a world without them

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Although the Cougars and the Utes both won their opening contests on the gridiron Thursday night, which helped put a smile on my face, I find myself a bit grumpy as I write this edition of "Utah Tech Watch."

Call it a bee in my bonnet or a burr under my saddle, but I am not a happy camper today.

For example, is there any way we can get Attorney General John Ashcroft and his terror-busting minions both here and abroad to focus at least some of their Homeland Defense efforts on tracking down and busting all those idiotic hackers out there?

Talk about a disruption to society and the economy.

Right about now I'm of the opinion that people that get their jollies by writing and unleashing destructive software code into the ether should be lined up and shot.

OK, that's obviously over the top, but pulling fingernails off might not be a bad start.

Seriously, if this is the only way that such ne'er-do-wells can find to prove their manhood (and don't get tweaked if you're a female hacker reading this column — you know as well as I do that the vast majority of hackers have an XY chromosome set), then something is obviously very, very wrong with Western society and our educational system.

Why can't such individuals put their efforts to good use, like helping crack the code of cancer or working to figure out how to make the fantasy transporter system of Star Trek fame become a reality?

I wish that such bright and clever programmers would contribute to society rather than helping to pull it down, and make a mark for themselves in the halls of fame rather than the halls of shame.

On a potentially related topic, a CTO friend in San Francisco dropped me an e-mail last week that suggests evidence may be mounting that the East Coast blackout of last month may have been triggered by the MBlaster virus.

Whether such speculation will ever be proven correct is a question that will hopefully be answered over time.

Even if such speculation proves incorrect, obviously we've got issues as a country when it comes to our nation's power grid, and that's a whole 'nother thing to get agitated about.

But for now, let's stick on the topic of hackers and computer viruses.

Personally I wish we could drop the term virus as the name used for hacker code designed to destroy or wreak havoc on computer systems and data.

Biological viruses, though sometimes deadly to humans, plants and animals, are generally benign in nature and help maintain a balanced and beneficial ecosystem.

There is also nothing to suggest at this point that biological viruses are sentient life forms.

On the flip side, though computer viruses are not "alive" either, they are obviously created and "brought to life" (so to speak) by those who are able to think and act for themselves.

And as far as I've been able to ascertain after nearly 20 years in this industry, I have yet to hear of any computer virus unleashed on the world that was designed to do good.

In fact, if the hackers out there are so good at identifying weaknesses in various applications, why not create good viruses — Mother Theresa-like code that would go out into the world looking to patch things up — to make better that which was less than perfect.

I suspect that such skills would be viewed as being very valuable to corporations that created the applications in the first place, let alone the organizations that use flawed software.

But I'm probably envisioning a Nirvana that will never exist.

So for now, I'll just stumble along writing with a software program created by a company that purports to delivering "Trustworthy Computing" into the marketplace but has yet to deliver a perfect piece of software to customers that didn't need to be updated or patched.

I'll also try to keep my gripes about hackers to myself and hope that this coming weekend brings additional joy on the gridiron here in Utah.

David Politis leads Politis Communications, a public relations, investor relations and marketing communications agency serving the high-tech and biotech markets. E-mail: dpolitis@politis.com.