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.

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Thanks for the interesting post -- and yes I agree that research should not be forced into commercial product mode too early on -- though thats often the premise for funding to be approved... Software updates! Great idea... Maybe you should sit down your buddy Cliff Saran and explain to him why software updates are a good idea so he can stop spreading FUD and defacing Computer Weekly with stupididty.

To the previous commenter:

Hi, it's Rebecca, deputy web editor, Computer Weekly, here, with a comment on your comment (which David hasn't seen - sorry David...!)

All of Computer Weekly's bloggers - whether on the staff, like Cliff, or external, like David - are independent of each other. Their opinions, as expressed on their blogs, are their own, not Computer Weekly's, and are often not shared by the other bloggers!

And that's a good thing. The aims of the blogs are to encourage debate, discussion and comment, to share views. When our staff blog, they're doing a different thing to what they'd do in a news article. In the blog, they're offering their personal view. In news they're bringing you the facts as they've found them. Cliff's a good journalist and he knows the difference. So in the blog he let off steam about an issue he cared about, as he would to a colleague at the next desk. And just as in that kind of environment, there was plenty of response, some of it rather indelicately expressed! Which, even if painful at times, is the way it works with blogging. But please do remember, it wasn't a 'news' piece, it was comment.

As was yours. And we very much want to see comment, so I'm very happy for yours to stand on the record.

However, as you originally claimed to be 'softwareupdates@computerweekly.com', I have changed your posting name to Anonymous. We allow anonymous posting, so please go for that next time you need to let off steam yourself, as posing as Computer Weekly staff by using a faked CW email address isn't exactly fair on other readers!