Millions of these microscopic invaders attack major government figures every day. Do you realize whole colonies of evil germs are currently seeking aid and comfort inside Dick Cheney's intestinal tract? My God, don't even get me started on all those dust mites in the President's lungs. Someone do something! Call the Secret Service!
Okay, I'm being flip. But there is a point to this. Microbes attack us all the time, and it doesn't make front page news. Our bodies are built to handle them. We welcome their presence, in fact, because they keep our immune system constantly on its toes, ready for any real invaders.
So why in the world of heck did the Code Red worm cause such consternation? Not only did it utterly fail to bring the Internet crashing to a halt as some media sources were claiming, but it never really had the power to do so. Sure, the worm was relatively smart. It could replicate itself across thousands of servers usually because the owners were never aware that Microsoft software had turned their computer into a server in the first place and then coordinate what is known as a denial of service attack on a chosen website on a given day at a given time.
But we're not talking the virtual version of HIV here. There was no malicious intent. The greatest effect so far noted in Code Red's last go-round two weeks ago was that the White House website, the ultimate target of its initial attacks, had to change its IP address. Hands up anyone, even anyone who was surfing the White House website at that exact moment, who noticed?
In the vast world of potential Internet viruses and worms, Code Red is a grade Z microbe. It would have to go through a significant amount of mutation before it became any sort of serious threat to the Internet's health. So watching the FBI and Microsoft put on their most serious face at Monday's press conference was like a scene from some diabolical 50's sci-fi movie: Attack of the Killer 0.5 in. Ants.
For Microsoft, this was the kind of publicity you just can't buy. Not only did Redmond get to share a dais with the Justice Department which is rather like Stalin vowing eternal friendship with Roosevelt to counter the Nazi menace but they also had their name inextricably linked with the well-being of the Internet itself. This quote from Tuesday's Wall Street Journal is typical: "the Code Red worm may disrupt the Internet on a global scale … the FBI urged owners of business-type servers to install a patch from Microsoft's website." When the world's in trouble, in other words, Bill Gates comes riding to the rescue.
Never mind that the majority of business-type servers run other companies' software, and were therefore never affected in the first place. Never mind that it was a sadly typical security flaw in Microsoft's server software that allowed Code Red to flourish. Note also that the million-plus people drawn to Microsoft's website by that patch included many thousands who didn't need it (the worm only hits Windows NT or 2000. Windows 95, 98 and ME are unaffected).
But I digress. Worms and viruses like this are a fact of online life. The moment you have a vast global network, you have people gleefully trying to scrawl graffiti all over it (such as Code Red's inane scribble "hacked by Chinese!!!"). It's human nature. The good thing is that in the long run this makes the system stronger through the act of resistance. That's also human (or rather, Darwinian) nature.
There is such a thing as white-hat hacking, where large corporations hire the most clever and mischievous of virtual raiders to probe their defenses for weaknesses. At its broadest definition, all hacking is white-hat hacking. Without it, the Internet would be like the Martians at the end of H.G. Wells' classic War of the Worlds: destroyed the moment we left our sterile, germ-free environment.
Because what we're preparing for is not the Code Reds of today, but the Code Deep Purples of tomorrow. Not half-assed worms cobbled together by so-called "script kiddies" who merely download the right pieces of code and whose intentions are basically benign. I'm talking about vast and malicious super worms. If you could create something that attacked Cisco router software, for example, you really would cause a global Internet meltdown.
At most, Code Red proved you should always be wary about what Microsoft software does to your machine, like turning it into a server without your implicit knowledge. Apart from that, the whole red-alert reaction only demonstrated that there's seemingly infinite space on the Feds' faces for more egg. That's what happens when you cry wolf over a microbe, guys.