When a Virus Becomes a Wild Sheep Native to the Caspian Region from Eastern Turkey

When a Virus Becomes a Wild Sheep Native to the Caspian Region from Eastern Turkey

This year marks the 30th anniversary of something I remember well, an event that one or maybe as many as two other people might remember. The year was 1991 and it was the occasion on which a small but dedicated group of volunteers at the Biblioteca Pública narrowly missed having the chance to enjoy our 15 minutes of fame.


Thirty years ago computer viruses were still uncommon. Those were the days before the worldwide internet made it possible for all kinds of malware to be instantly and widely disseminated. In the late 1980s and early 90s if you were infected by a computer virus it almost certainly arrived on an infected floppy disk, and that is what happened at the Biblioteca.


At first nobody at the library really knew what was happening, but we recognized a virus infection was a possibility. During the investigation, I ended up making a series of phone calls to what at that time was one of the only companies that made anti-virus software, and none other than John McAfee himself was the one answering the phone. We spoke several times over a long afternoon as he sorted through information from me and from other callers about this new and unknown virus. By the end of the day, John told me that I was the second or third person to call reporting this new virus, so the first caller got the honor of naming it.


And that is how our dedicated group of library volunteers just missed getting to name “La Biblioteca Pública de San Miguel de Allende Virus.” The technician who discovers a new virus/malware was usually afforded the chance to name it. Those names range from descriptive to whimsical but going forward it appears they will all be just plain dumb.


There is an information technology group known as CERT (Computer Emergency Response Team) that has for some time been coordinating the name chosen for virus/malware threats. Software vulnerabilities are currently catalogued by number, primarily the CVE (Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures) ID number, plus the name the discoverer chooses. That has worked rather well because most people are better at remembering names than numbers. Now though, CERT has come up with an unappealing plan for automatic naming of newly-discovered vulnerabilities.


The plan would have a computer algorithm automatically choose from two-word lists, one adjective and one noun. See for yourself at twitter.com/vulnonym. The first one, assigned last November, is CVE-2020-4785 nicknamed “whacking mouflon.” I will pause while you go to your dictionary to look up mouflon.


So now we can look forward to future virus/malware being automatically assigned a name like “unpainted octopus” or “bilious bureaucrat” or “cuddly carcinogen.” It is hard to argue that such ludicrous names are not somewhat memorable, and indeed it is arguable that the computer algorithm choosing the names sometimes seems to have a sense of humor.


Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8@SMAguru.com.