White Hat Worms

Microsoft researchers at Cambridge are on the back foot after publicizing details of research into Sampling Strategies for Epidemic-Style Information Dissemination. This rather technical piece of work was highlighted in a New Scientist feature last week. It reported that the authors wanted to “make software updates behave more like computer worms”. The researchers were also quoted as suggesting that it may also help defend against malicious types of worm.

The article triggered a wave of criticism. Bruce Schneier pointed out that patching people’s machines without their consent is a stupid idea. His comments spurred journalists to dig further. Microsoft went on the defensive, confirming there were no plans to incorporate such features into Microsoft products. There were suggestions that the writer of the New Scientist story might have “sexed up” the research by using terms such as “friendly worms”.

Now I agree with the points that Bruce makes. It’s not a new suggestion and it sounds like a dangerous idea. But it would be a terrible shame if we end up in situation where theoretical research avenues are constrained by assumptions about what is considered to be currently practical or, worse, what is deemed politically correct. Researchers need to be free to think the unthinkable and to experiment with new or crazy ideas. Research work produced for one purpose often ends up being applied to an entirely different set of problems. MIT Media Lab operates on that basis by introducing unconventional, freeform research to hard-nosed business executives. Let’s keep at least part of our research efforts free of criticism, censure and politics.