Ah, the edifying trip to the museum. Basking in the Dutch masters. Pondering Warhol’s soup cans. Watching a pixelated marijuana leaf unfold on your screen…
The latter work (COFFSHOP.COM, artist unknown, if you’re keeping score) can be found at the Malware Museum, the brainchild of F-Secure Chief Research Officer Mikko Hypponen.
The museum, part of the Internet Archive, houses DOS viruses from the 1980s and 1990s. Visitors can watch malware’s on-screen manifestations at the website and can even download emulations to their PCs. The viruses have long since been defanged.
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Jason Scott, the Malware Museum’s software curator, believes there’s nostalgic appeal to the viruses, especially given the grim purposefulness of today’s theft- and espionage-oriented malware. “It’s the difference between a cartoon villain and a superhero,” he says.
The allusion to children’s experiences is no accident. Many museum visitors tell Scott that “MS-DOS is their childhood,” he says. “A lot of people grew up with a computer [and have] a strong memory of playing games.”
He says the museum offers a “vintage computer situation, and many of the viruses even do a little dance” – the graphical amusements, such as a dude walking across the user’s terminal or an acid-inspired psychedelic show. “It’s powerful for a lot of people.”
The museum went live in early February and was an immediate hit, garnering mainstream press attention and even causing some controversy.
“This is kind of a stupid idea,” says Ira Winkler, president of Secure Mentem. “First, many virus writers wrote for their own ego purposes. This is rewarding them for damage they caused. It can also encourage people to write new viruses … so they can be immortalized on this site.”
Other security veterans agree with Winkler that showcasing virus writers’ efforts may be a bad thing in the long run. And make no mistake: while old DOS viruses seem innocent and goofy compared to enterprise ransomware attacks and advanced persistent threats, back in its day much of this malware was serious as a heart attack to its victims – their files might be locked up or overwritten, their (tan colored) PCs rendered useless.
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“Even the so-called harmless viruses caused significant work,” Winkler says, “in [requiring users to] clean the viruses off their systems.”
Nevertheless, the Malware Museum is closing in on a million page views, enough to determine that some viruses make more popular downloads than others.
Which malware examples draw the most downloads? Generally, speaking, the ones with curb appeal. “The more visual samples seem to be more attractive [to museum visitors], which is really not a surprise,” Hypponen says.
Scott agrees. A particular virus enjoys a burst of popularity, he says, when an article about it appears elsewhere. “Otherwise,” he adds, “it’s all about the pure visual.”
While Winkler and others frown on the museum’s mission, Hypponen, who’s been collecting malware for a quarter-century, disagrees.
“Many old-school virus writers were using their viruses as a means of expression,” he says. “That's why we get all these displays. Some would call it art. All my colleagues have agreed that this art - like any other type of art - should be preserved. And that's what we're doing.”
Ulfelder is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.