Protecting Computers and People From Viruses

Robin K. Hill - Credit: University of Wyoming

Protecting Computers and People From Viruses
Communications of the ACM, October 2020, Vol. 63 No. 10, Page 8
By Robin K. Hill

“The really interesting question is what a strong successful analogy, matching computer viruses to organic viruses, would mean.”


The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the virus analogy that gave rise to the use of the word “virus” from biology, to label a malicious program that attacks computer systems. The situation moves us to look into that, as another way to compare nature and artifact, and as an excuse to raise more abstract questions. We are moved also to stipulate that our mastery of both the biological and computational forms is shallow, and to invite other, better observations to follow. See Apvrille and Guillaume for greater depth and intriguing crossover speculation, Weis for yet more intriguing comparison, and Wenliang Du’s website for detailed virus examples, which constitute dramatic reading for coders.


A virus is generally not regarded as a living organism, but sometimes described as (similar to) software. When the first self-replicating computer programs made the rounds, they were experiments or pranks; for most, the point was solely reproduction. An early computer worm was beneficent, but escaped control.


We distinguish computer viruses from computer worms by the profligate scale of replication, viruses generating a broadcast of copies rather than a chain of copies. The obvious points of analogy across both types of virus include that viruses are tiny, invading a host much greater in size and complexity, without an overt signal, and that viruses disrupt some process in the host. Neither computer nor biological virus necessarily does damage. In biology, self-replication is an end, not a means, making the damage a side-effect. In the modern computer virus, the end is likely to be the action of a payload of malicious code. Now the term “virus,” in both environments, connotes an intrusive and damaging force carrying dangerous baggage.


To explore some points of analogy systematically, consider access: How is virus entry accomplished? Computer viruses look for an opening by probing known vulnerabilities; if one is found, malificent code is injected. This is quite like the organic version.

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About the Author:

Robin K. Hill is a lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and an affiliate of both the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies and the Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research at the University of Wyoming. She has been a member of ACM since 1978.