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Technology: You Must Be Punished

3 minute read
Philip Elmer-Dewitt

For computer buffs visiting Pakistan’s historic city of Lahore, it seemed too good a bargain to pass up. A shop called Brain Computer Services was selling brand-name computer programs, such as Lotus 1-2-3 and WordStar, which can cost several hundred dollars in the U.S., for as little as $1.50 each. During a period of nearly two years, from early 1986 to late 1987, scores of Americans — most of them students and backpackers — paraded through the small carpeted store, snapping up cut-rate disks for use on their computers back home.

They took away a lot more than a piece of low-cost software. Hidden in nearly every disk was an extra program not supplied by any manufacturer: a snippet of computer code many consider to be the world’s most sophisticated computer virus. Every time an unsuspecting user lent his new disk to a friend or colleague, and every time the disk was run on a machine shared by other users, the code spread from one computer to another. Before long, the so- called Brain or Pakistani virus had found its way onto at least 100,000 floppy disks, sometimes with data-destroying impact. In each case the illicit program left behind a calling card for those savvy enough to find it: a message that began with the words WELCOME TO THE DUNGEON, and was signed by two men named Amjad and Basit.

Amjad Farooq Alvi, 26, and Basit Farooq Alvi, 19, a pair of self-taught computer experts, are brothers who were raised in a middle-class suburb of Lahore. Amjad is the proprietor of the Brain computer shop. By all accounts he is the stronger programmer. After graduating from Punjab University with a degree in physics, he began devouring electronics texts and teaching himself the rudiments of computer repair and programming. For several years, he earned a living by fixing personal computers. By 1985 he had switched to programming, producing customized software that was, to his dismay, copied and used without permission around Lahore.

That is when Amjad came up with the idea of creating a virus, a self- replicating program that would “infect” an unauthorized user’s computer, disrupt his operations and force him to contact Amjad for repairs. Says brother Basit: “He wanted a way to detect piracy, to catch someone who copies.” Meanwhile, however, the Alvi brothers had started doing some copying of their own, making bootleg duplicates of American programs and selling them at steep discounts. Eventually, they started injecting the same virus into some of those program disks as well.

Some, but not all. When Pakistanis came in for, say, Lotus 1-2-3, they were sold clean, uncontaminated copies. But foreigners, particularly Americans, were given virus-ridden versions. Why the special treatment for outsiders? The brothers’ somewhat confused rationalization hinges on a loophole in Pakistani law. According to Basit, copyright protection in Pakistan does not extend to computer software. Therefore, he says, it is not illegal for local citizens to trade in bootleg disks; technically, they are not engaged in software piracy. Then why infect American buyers? “Because you are pirating,” says Basit. “You must be punished.”

The Alvi brothers say they stopped selling contaminated software sometime in 1987, satisfied that they had taught the software pirates a lesson. Nobody knows precisely how much damage their little experiment caused, but everyone agrees that it was an impressive piece of work. “This virus is elegant,” says John McAfee of the InterPath computer company, expressing grudging respect for its creator. “I don’t admire what he did, but I admire the way he did it. He may be the best virus designer the world has ever seen.”

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