Envy and Destructiveness: Understanding the Impulses Behind Computer Viruses

Andy Bissett and Geraldine Shipton


Some sensitive computer installations are attacked as many as 250,000 times per year. Many of these attacks are in the form of computer viruses; in fact it is claimed that 90 per cent of companies experience a virus attack each month. The construction and propagation of computer viruses is clearly a highly unethical practice. The main effect of a virus is to disrupt and deny the resources of a computer or computer system to the people using it. This may result in considerable if not complete loss of work, and can have extreme emotional and financial consequences, or even safety or political consequences. Even where a computer system can be made immune to virus attack, this can only be done at the expense of an extra effort. This effort incurs penalties of time, cost, and, usually, of making the computer system harder to use.

Hundreds of viruses have been launched, and many more continue to be conceived and released, for it is generally held that there is no completely secure defence against them. However, once a virus has been identified then a means of combating it may be formulated, so an extensive and useful literature exists concerning the technical means of virus prevention, detection and disinfection. By contrast, in this paper we consider the motivation behind the invention and release of computer viruses. It is interesting and worthwhile to do so, given the scale and permanence of the problem.

We briefly survey the different types of virus. Different kinds of viruses will have different ‘aims’ and effects. The same virus can have different effects on different kinds of computer systems. The intent behind a virus and the actual effect it will have may be disparate. These issues are evaluated and discussed. Next we examine and discuss possible conscious motivations: these include political; ethical; commercial; and malicious. However, the paper is also concerned with unconscious motivations and goes on to look at possible meanings for these disruptive activities from within a psychodynamic framework which draws on the work of Melanie Klein. The virus maker finds his activities useful in coping with unresolved issues such as: competition and rivalry; inability to form intimate attachments; the desire to control and disturb other people; envy. There may also be more playful aspects to this subversive behaviour which may result in a creative contribution to computing knowledge. The paper is also concerned to understand the relationship of virus making to gender. The paper draws upon previously published case studies of viruses and their makers in order to furnish material for these discussions.

We conclude that virus creation means different things for different perpetrators, but that generally it is a destructive act aimed at dismantling what is apparently ‘whole’. This reflects the reality that life constantly contains processes of destruction as well as creation. Paradoxically, the orderly, constructed world becomes stronger through the process of learning and defending against each new virus, in mimicry of the biological world. In other words, immunity is eventually acquired.

It may be the case that virus making is a natural but undesirable corollary to legitimate computer usage.