Computer Worms are Getting Smarter

Our computational server was just hit by a worm that has also affected several other machines at our university. What’s remarkable is the rate and sophistication of innovation in this field (not that it’s a good thing). The worm that hit us is called Downad.ad, a recent member of a family known as the Conficker. Early versions of this worm simply gave its mysterious authors remote access to an infected machine. However, over time the worm’s main task has changed: its primary job is now to infect machines, keep hidden and make itself difficult to eradicate. It does so by using sophisticated encryption techniques, blocking antivirus tools and software upgrades, and most interestingly by making deep changes to the operating system and to itself to remain obfuscated. Once lodged into the victim’s computer, it doesn’t actually harm its host but acts as a parasite, forming a node in a gigantic virtual supercomputer that enables other nasty bits of software to be downloaded and run in a distributed fashion. Amazingly these bits of code are themselves encrypted and distributed using a very sophisticated system. After running the downloaded code, the infected machine sleeps for some time before repeating the cycle. I’m not a computer security expert, but it seems to me that the strategy is very clever – basically the worm writers have decided to create a General Purpose Technology that can be used in numerous ways. Now I wish they had popped up a screen right into Stata on our infected machine and offered me some of that computing power for number crunching.

My Week with H1N1

I suppose it would have been wise to have taken the H1N1 vaccine. But from many accounts, the pig flu was supposed to have only a mild effect on adults. I had observed this to be the case when my wife and various friends had it earlier this year. A few sniffles, a sore throat, and all was well again. So I did not give serious thought to being inoculated.

Well, Nature had decided to disprove my assumptions in a big way. I just spent the past week in bed battling a high fever, diarrhoea, sore throat and various other symptoms. According to the doctor, my symptoms were in line with H1N1. But there was a catch: I had also caught a second, bacterial infection, and that made a huge difference. The interaction of the two wreaked havoc on my body. The fever was difficult to control even with strong medicine, often leading to shivers. For five days I was on a liquid diet. I felt a profound tiredness that I had never felt the previous times I had battled influenza.

Inadvertently this led to some time well-spent in introspection and meditation. In fact this was perhaps the first week in a long time that I have been quite completely offline. I hope you will share the lesson I’ve learnt: the germs are pretty innovative and combinatorial attacks can be very nasty. If you haven’t gotten inoculated for H1N1, now’s the time.

ps: This is an Economics blog and makes no pretense of offering medical advice

UPDATE: I’ve been asked if this is a low-probability random event that I’ve experienced. No. The multiple infections are not independent: a first infection weakens the body sufficiently and makes it easy for a second infection to set in. Search around the web and you will find quite a number of reports in which H1N1 appears with pneumonia and other infections.

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