Daemons: IT Keepsakes

Opinion: Highly intelligent threats may soon move to nonfiction.

When a person departs from a company, its inevitable that he or she will leave something behind. When that person is an IT worker, whats left behind is a lot more than tchotchkes and forgotten lunches in the break-room refrigerator.

Often, a part of departed IT workers continues working at their old companies. Maybe its a server routine that regularly backs up a database. Or maybe its a report generator that e-mails a weekly status update. Basically, any automated jobs that the IT workers put in place will continue to perform until someone decides to take the jobs down.

And if the IT worker in question is a developer, this kind of permanent automated presence goes much deeper—from the obvious concept that an application the developer wrote will continue to carry out work to the possibility that the developer put into place hidden routines that will go into action if specific events occur. These routines can range from ramping down activity during high-traffic loads to more nefarious backdoors that a disgruntled developer might have implemented to hack or embarrass his or her previous employer.

The idea of developers leaving behind an application that will carry on tasks in their absence is the subject of a work of fiction recently sent to me by the author, who happens to be one of my regular readers.

"Daemon," by Leinad Zeraus, is about a highly complex automated routine, or daemon, that triggers after a specific event occurs—in this case, the appearance of the obituary of the daemons developer in online newspapers.

Of course, this being a work of fiction, the daemon isnt there to back up databases or patch systems. In the book, the daemon accesses accounts and systems at companies and government agencies to attack, implicate and even kill the dead developers enemies.

Now, like most things that are intended as entertainment, "Daemon" quickly moves past plausible technical underpinnings. By the last page, the book is firmly entrenched in pure science fiction. But a lot of the ideas in "Daemon" definitely had me thinking, What if?

Most of the viruses and Trojans we deal with today are, in a sense, automated and distributed daemons that carry out tasks free from any real persons supervision. But even the most complicated viruses are pretty stupid and are basically limited to spreading themselves to other systems.

In the book, the creator of the daemon is a legendary gaming developer known for creating realistic enemy artificial intelligences, and, to me, this is a very interesting idea. Most technologists agree that true HAL 9000-level AI still isnt possible. But it is possible to come up with something that looks a lot like good AI in games because all the parameters and possibilities can be, to a large degree, controlled and limited.

Imagine someone writing a Trojan or virus that had a game-worthy AI routine geared toward online banking or customer service—something that could potentially interact with people and with systems aimed at effecting change in the real world. The potential effects of something like this make modern-era Trojans and rootkits look like BB guns.

You might be saying, "Come on—something like that would require some serious processing power." True, but botnets already leverage their distributed power to do some pretty processor-intensive jobs. A distributed AI-enabled daemon could potentially have a very powerful network of systems at its disposal.

Some of the better games that have come out recently feature tough artificial opponents. A recent World War II-themed game I played impressed me with the way the German soldiers responded sensibly to my position and tactics, rather than launching the suicidal frontal attacks that are common AIs in older games.

Now, imagine dealing with a Trojan or rootkit that responded in a similar way—in real time, based on your own IT security and defense tactics. Its a pretty scary thought.

Of course, "Daemon" is just a book, and I found it to be an enjoyable read. But the ideas in the book arent that way-out. Someday, we may be defending our systems against automated threats that arent just dumb viruses—and the ideas in "Daemon" will have moved from the fiction to the nonfiction section.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at jim_rapoza@ziffdavis.com.

WWWeb Resources

Read all about it

The home page of "Daemon," a novel by Leinad Zeraus


Artificial ingredients

Information from the American Association for Artificial Intelligence


Check out eWEEK.coms Security Center for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Ryan Naraines eWEEK Security Watch blog.