While Symantec and Norton spend large sums of money every year defusing viruses written by young programmers, and while the media vilifies the criminals as dark anomalies emanating from the technoculture, a subset of fiction and cinema has continued to celebrate the underground and find new ways in expressing the motives of virus writing pariahs.
In 1984, William Gibson's Neuromancer began the Cyberpunk genre, a movement that culminated with the Matrix in 1999, and continues on to this day with a new book of a different flavor, titled Memoirs of a Virus Programmer by Pete Flies, that puts satire and psychology in the pit together to examine the motives of a young disgruntled employee and his attempts to spear an elephant-sized company, as the main character, named Johnny Pepper, sets his virus execution to run "one week before the end of the third fiscal quarter, which happened to be the perfect time for a Dow stock to take a dive and rattle Wall Street."
Prior to this book, various groups and psychiatrists have studied the motives of a virus programmer. According to Sarah Gordon in her study titled, "The Generic Virus Writer," she draws disturbing conclusions such as "virus writers…seem to be motivated by different reasons than the old 'virus underground,'" and she calls for active pursuit of ethics in universities. Memoirs of a Virus Programmer has the programmer acting out for a non-traditional reason: revenge. The virus is Pepper's only chance to be creative in a large company, where he is continually strangled by red-tape and office politics.
A CNN interview of a virus writer named "Evan" echoed some of the ideas in Memoirs, with his statement that writing a virus is something that some programmers "were just called to do." The sentiment of Evan sounds very similar to that of authors and artists who feel compelled to create. However, Pepper feels that he has been driven or forced to write a virus to find a way to be creative, making his motive subtly different from Evan's attraction to writing viruses. The company's lack of ethics, such as the common practice of layoffs, the corporate attitude, and the overcharging of customers for billable hours, all niggle Pepper, along with the pontificating office-mate who continually reads the news out loud. However, it is his own isolation and emotional instability that ultimately allow him to write the virus.
The author, Flies (pronounced "Fleece"), indicates that Johnny Pepper is a different type of criminal. "Instead of going postal, he undercuts the corporation in a way that actually hurts. If what you rage against is only an entity on paper, then what good is physical violence? A virus is a type of intellectual violence. There is a discourse on types of violence in the book, such as violence of mercy, violence of duty, entertainment, medical, and finally, electronic violence."
Flies was a software engineer at IBM for several years, and says that the book is not autobiographical.
"It is primarily a book about an era and an archetype, both of which I feel are to date unexplored in fiction and satire. The character begins like Candide, with absurd optimism, hoping for creativity in his career, but while he runs the gauntlet of modern life - from the suburbs, to the slums, to Christian revivalism, to the desperate housewife next door - his mood degrades into Dostoyevsky's nameless narrator from Notes from the Underground."
Pepper selects the name for his virus with fifteen minutes of fame in mind: "I needed a name the public might remember for a few years. A name like Codeskunk. Bacillibomb. Monitor Jaundice. Scrabs. Staphlopopeye."
He describes the technical pieces of the virus in detail, including the methods used to lift a password off his hated office-mate in order to log in as another user. He becomes almost insane with joy in programming the virus, saying, "My nerves tightened…my fingers trembled as I wrote my program after hours. Writing the virus code thrilled me, my eyes stayed glued to my monitor. In my chair, I leaned so far forward to the computer screen, that I had to put a knee on the carpet." He defends his goal by saying, "for the first time…my inflated title of 'software engineer' was applicable."
The execution of his program kicks off with a single thread that proliferates. "A thread can do all kinds of wonderful, useful jobs…To activate the thread, I needed to have a kickoff point, a hook, somewhere else in the code. The activation needed to be senseless and confusing enough that no programmer coming across it would want to consider wasting his time monkeying with it."
From a bug that he fixed earlier in the story, he knows of an obtuse vulnerability in the software that no one else in the company is aware of. He describes the "party crasher" as "a dynamic generation-compile-load of a tiny executable that would attempt to call a native function from outside the active WebCutter program, but the function invoked would not exist." Completely unapologetic throughout his virus creation, Pepper obfuscates his code using "a series of bewildering multiplications, divisions, and bitwise operations to arrive at a more suitable date for the virus to activate."
Yet the ending of the book does not glorify the criminal act, as Pepper finds himself facing an ethical dilemma beyond his control. He comes of age in a harrowing manner, too late for his own redemption. But, on the other hand, he shows no pity for Symantec or Norton either.