Epidemic!

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To begin my exploration of the public health field, I headed to my local library and picked up Epidemic! – The World of Infections Disease, edited by Rob DeSalle. This collection of essays by epidemiology researchers is intended to introduce the layperson to the field. Here’s what I’ve learned and asked myself through the first 60 pages:

  • Infectious diseases often depend upon their host remaining alive in order to spread. The same is true for “infectious” malware (which probably refers more to worms and other self-replicating code than to drive-by downloads, which seem more like chemical weapons). After all, if a worm causes its host machine to stop functioning (or for someone to shut it down), it won’t spread.
  • The malware world already uses some terminology from epidemiology: hosts, vectors, infections, viruses, etc. One term that we don’t use is “reservoir,” which refers to the location where an organism lives (and in some cases multiplies) before infecting a host. This seems like it could be a good way to describe websites that have bad code residing on them but are not actually infected with the malware themselves.
  • A given infectious disease exists in a particular cultural & ecological context. [p. 33] In other words, disease is dependent upon favorable conditions. This applies to malware, too. The mass mailing worms earlier this decade, for example, were only successful due to the large, interconnected population of Outlook users willing to open unknown messages.
  • Some of the conditions that make us susceptible to infectious disease include our internal balance being of, our ecosystem changing, and traveling to a different ecosystem. [p. 40] Many parallels there, and it raises the question: what are the conditions that make us susceptible to malware infection?
  • Diversity within an infectious species helps it to adapt and survive [p. 49], much like a mutating computer exploit is able to evade many traditional defenses.
  • “Motivating appropriate human individual behavior and constructive action, both locally and on a larger scale, is essential for controlling emerging infections. Ironically, as AIDS prevention efforts have shown, our knowledge of human behavior remains one of the weakest links in our scientific knowledge.” –Steven S. Morse [p.55] There’s no question that understanding the human behavior side of things (esp. with regard to social engineering, but also to protecting systems, etc.] is critical to solving the malware problem.
  • It’s not uncommon in epidemiology for a previously undetected infectious agent, once it is detected, to be viewed as an “emerging threat,” when in reality, it may have been there a lot longer than we realized. [p. 55] I wonder how true this is in the malware world. My inclination is to think it doesn’t apply all that much. (It does for vulnerabilities, but I’m not sure it does for the malware itself.)
  • Diseases sometimes reemerge due to lax controls once the previous outbreak seemed controlled. [p. 56] We’ve seen this at times in the malware world, but one of the common solutions to an “infectious outbreak” of malware is “immunizing” the systems to that malware through patching or definition updates, so we don’t often see the same malware attack again in the same way.

Note: I’ve included page numbers from the book for my own ability to refer back and for the benefit of anyone else who might pick it up. These references do not include the author and essay title, so I wouldn’t suggest using these as citations in school papers or published works.

This entry is part of a series. See the introduction for more information.

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