Good Worms Are a Bad Idea

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-05-05 Print this article Print

Some bad ideas are so cool that they never go away. In the end, will Botman swoop down to save the day?

Some bad ideas seem to live on forever. One of the big ones in computers is to use hacker tactics to perform white-hat operations on an Internet scale. The classic example of this is the "good worm" idea-a worm that spreads among computers to improve their security.

There have been attempts to do this in the past, most famously Welchia, a worm that exploited the infamous Windows RPC/DCOM network vulnerability in order to patch it. There were also reports years ago of Hewlett-Packard launching a good worm, but this turned out to be a more conventional scanning system that in some ways presaged NAC (Network Admission Control).

The lesson from Welchia is that these things are a bad idea. As Spencer Katt put it, good worms resemble their evil twins in many unpleasant ways. They invade privacy, hog resources and potentially create vulnerabilities in the systems they infect.

More to the point, releasing them is illegal and immoral. It's also pretentious: How dare you decide what code other people should be running on their systems? How dare you say that you know better how to manage my security than I do?

These issues are all in play in the recent seizure of a major botnet by researchers at TippingPoint Technologies' Digital Vaccine Laboratories. Even more, when an experienced group like TippingPoint is at the center, it's tempting to take some modest action-like killing known malicious processes. The researchers here, however, seem to know better.

David Endler of TippingPoint recognizes the dilemma and says that it is liability issues that made the decision clear. He's right in that liability issues are a great reason not to take action on botnets, but the moral ones are clear enough, too.

Efficacy is another potential reason. For many of the newly cleansed systems, good times will be short. The computers were vulnerable to begin with and probably many of the users would go right out and re-infect themselves. Unless the process could include applying patches, updating software and installing anti-malware, effectiveness would be less than we would hope for. For older systems-running Windows 98, for example-little can be done to make them secure enough.

Yet, it seems wrong to conclude from all my skepticism that we should just leave these machines alone, unfettered in their ability to attack innocent third parties. But if anyone should be taking bots offline without the explicit consent of the computer owner, it's a government, and bots are international. I certainly don't trust the United Nations to be mucking with people's computers, so I don't know where to go with this.

I do think someone will make a serious attempt to launch an "unbot" eventually. They'll have to do it surreptitiously, superhero-like, masking their secret identity. They could get away with it, too, but like other superheroes, they'll have to flout the law in order to fight crime, and innocent people will be damaged in the process. As in The Incredibles, expect lawsuits to follow. It's not a good situation.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer's blog Cheap Hack


Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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