Risky Business: How Microsoft Turns the Threat of Contagion into a Profit

On: March 14, 2011
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About Niels Kerssens


Computer viruses have posed a threat to the Windows operating system and its users since its earliest versions. The security update, often integrated in the infamous service packs, is the never-ending temporal solution for those that want to minimize the risk of contagion. However, as the title of a recent article on Nu.nl reads, “1.2 Million Dutch make use of an out-of-date Windows”. That is, they use a version of XP or Vista that is no longer supported for (security) updates. This means, as stated in this short article, “that these computers are more sensitive for attacks and viruses”. Microsoft’s solution to this risky situation is simple; update your system with the latest free service pack, or switch to Windows 7. If you want to minimize the risk of contagion, you have to update, otherwise you are on your own. Being subject to these viral anomalies of networked culture, the user is left little choice. I mean, a fact is a fact. Without proper protection, operating in the networked realm turns into a dangerous activity. Although, the current level of risk seems to be minimal, as the article concludes, “at the moment there are no big attacks known that make use of the vulnerabilities of the Windows versions”.

However, Windows may at present be free of attacks, the risk of contagion remains. Risks are always part of a future tense, as sociologist Ulrich Beck has so convincingly demonstrated in his conceptualization of the risk society. They are always becoming real, which means the existence of risks is virtual. Risks only live in media representations where is defined what counts as risk and what should be feared in the face of a future realization. It is therefore all the more interesting to notice that the being ‘out of date’ of Windows systems is framed in terms of a security risk that is to be feared, and not for instance, in terms of the inability of such out-of-date systems to yield the fruits of the innovations of Windows 7. From a marketing perspective, this would not be that awkward. I mean, I suppose Windows 7 offers more than security updates.

Crucial to Beck’s understanding of risk is that they are socially constructed. There are no ‘essential’ risks, there is only the staging of risks through discourse. This leads Beck to questions such as: Who is in the position to make publicly valid statements of risks? And, who profits from the fear that discourses of risk engender? The risk of contagion that surrounds the computer virus makes an interesting case. In his book Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses (2007) media archaeologist Jussi Parikka argues for the crucial role of the computer virus’ articulation in the early eighties as a potential danger for the information society. Parikka refers to, for instance, the important role of computer scientist Fred Cohen, who demonstrated the risk of contagion as universal and argued for how every computer system is practically vulnerable to attack. Yet as Parikka describes, it was only when Cohen’s concerns were recognized by the media that the first anti-virus products appeared on the market. Then as Parikka concludes,

Paradoxically, even as the virus was spoken of as a central threat to informational capitalism, it spurred a whole new industry sector producing virus cures, scans, and security information. The increasing knowledge of computer worms, viruses, and other malware was quickly turned into practices that benefited the growing computer industry and digital culture (2007: 73)

In short, this new computer virus protection industry profited of the risk of contagion. And it does not require big intelligence to conclude that this industry had vested interests to keep the threat of infection alive. Players such as McAfee and Norton profit from the ongoing discourse of fear that surrounds the computer virus, although such corporations would like us to belief that they are simply securing us users from these anomalies of digital culture.

Of course, taking into consideration the constructed nature of the computer virus as a risk of contagion is not to say that this virus is only a discursive construct, and actually no harm can be done. Such a form of naïve constructivism would mean to lose sight of the difference between contagion by the computer virus as event, and a discourse that concerns this event. The crucial point is rather that the danger of contagion as risk does not exist in itself, but only becomes a political issue through a discourse that determines the computer virus in terms of a danger with the selective employment of scientific materials. The ways in which the computer virus is framed in terms of an ever-present danger of contagion should therefore become our ‘real’ object of concern. The risk of contagion should not be taken as a matter-of-fact, but as what Bruno Latour describes as a matter-of-concern. That is, a ‘fact’ that is fabricated, which would turn our attention to the assembly of actors that sustain the computer virus as an immanent risk to our computerized and networked activities.

Then to return to the issue of the out-of-date Windows, we should take the statement “these computers are sensitive for attacks and viruses” not as a matter-of-fact but as a matter of concern. This should turn our attention to the actors and strategies that are key to framing the issue of out-of-date Windows systems in terms of a security threat. It seems as though the McAfee’s and Norton’s are not the only ones that have successfully turned the ‘accidents’ of our networked culture into a profit. Although it seems that over the years the computer virus has turned into Microsoft’s Windows worst nemesis, with the vulnerability of the Windows system being the object of ongoing dispute, even Microsoft seems to have succeeded to ‘feed’ of the threat of contagion. Within this ‘risky business’ Windows 7 is positioned as the new safe-haven. Those out-of-date XP and Vista users that refuse to switch are on their own, subject to the dangers of our networked environment. Those that choose to switch, however, are free of danger. Albeit, that is until Windows is updated to its latest version, and discontinues its support for updates.

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