It has come to this: A professor at the University of Calgary in the fall will teach a class that will show students how to code viruses and Trojans. The university is billing the class as the first of its kind in Canada, and it may well be the first such course anywhere.
The class, entitled “Computer Viruses and Malware,” will “focus on developing malicious software such as computer viruses, worms and Trojan horses,” according to a press release announcing the availablilty of the course. Students will also learn how to deconstruct and analyze malicious programs and delve into the ethics and legalities surrounding viruses.
All of which would be fine if the students werent actually learning to write viruses, as well, anti-virus experts say. “Its shocking that theyre doing this. I understand the motivation, but its the methods I have a problem with. In many ways its very irresponsible,” said Chris Belthoff, senior product manager at Sophos Inc., an anti-virus company based in Lynnfield, Mass. “If I want to combat smallpox, Im not going to create a new deadlier strain of smallpox.”
Experts in the labs of every major anti-virus company in the world spend their days taking apart and analyzing the code of viruses, Trojans and worms. But few if any of these technicians are former virus writers; in fact, most are simply people who took an interest in the subject and learned through experience. This, they say, is the only real way to prepare for a career in the AV industry. Coding the next Melissa virus isnt likely to win you many fans among the professionals charged with fighting these programs.
“You dont need to know how to write a new virus in order to combat it,” Belthoff said. “That reasoning is severely questionable.”
John Aycock, the professor who will teach the class, did not respond to a request for comment on this story. But in the universitys press release, he says “that in order to develop more secure software, and countermeasures for malicious software, you first need to know how malicious software works and the mindset of its creators. By looking through the eyes of the people who develop these viruses, our students will learn what their targets actually are and what needs to be protected. Its a case of being proactive rather than reactive. This attitude is similar to what medical researchers do to combat the latest biological viruses such as SARS. Before you can develop a cure, you have to understand what the virus is and how it spreads—why should combating computer viruses be any different?”
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