Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Trojan Horse Metaphor

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Trojan Horse Metaphor

Article excerpt


AS COMPUTER NETWORKS become more pervasive in everyday life, there are more reasons for people to want to tamper with them. Because e-commerce attracts more and more money to the internet, the old-fashioned game of cops-and-robbers now enters the new territory of cyberspace.

A new industry of computer security has given rise to a colorful vocabulary, heavily influenced by science fiction and fantasy writers. There are the Samurai (hackers who hire out for legal jobs unveiling difficult-to-access information) who work for the suits whom they despise. There are the Dark Side Hackers who are out to steal or destroy information. They roam the internet trying to get through firewalls (programs set up to protect particular networks). They risk getting caught in iron boxes or venus flytraps (traps for remote hackers).

Among the "malware" (malicious programs) which can be found on computer networks, viruses are the most feared -- these are programs hidden in other programs which can do all sorts of unauthorized tasks. The Chernobyl Virus, for example, attempts to erase the entire hard drive and disable a key chip in the computer. In some versions of the virus, it becomes active on the 26th of every month, recalling the April 26 date of the Chernobyl disaster.

Also dangerous are worms, self-contained programs which roam the internet looking for systems to break into and disable. The most famous worm incident remains The Great Worm of 1988, (which was mistakenly called a virus in the press). This little program disabled thousands of computers around the country by clogging them up, much to the dismay of its perpetrator, who had not anticipated it would replicate itself so quickly. Although the worst infestations of the Great Worm were cleared in a couple of days, it still occasionally shows up and needs to be dealt with.

There is another piece of "malware" which has started to get headlines -- the Trojan Horse. This is a program which looks like something else, but when it runs on your computer it performs various hidden tasks. Some observers call it a kind of virus, but some Trojan Horses can have worm-like properties as well.

The metaphor, of course, goes back a few thousand years to the end of the Trojan War, when the invading Greeks appeared to give up and sail away from Troy, leaving behind a large wooden horse as a mute offering. When the triumphant Trojans pulled the horse, conveniently provided with wheels, into their city, Greek soldiers hidden inside sneaked out after the party was over and opened the gates of the city. The Greeks came in and slaughtered the unsuspecting Trojans.

The Trojan Horse deception was the idea of the wily Odysseus, one of the Greek leaders. However, Odysseus incurred the displeasure of the Gods, who detoured his trip home for over ten years. His various improbable adventures are chronicled in The Odyssey, one of the great mythic tales of all time. When Odysseus did get back home to Ithaca in Greece, he had to slaughter dozens of suitors who were wooing his wife and eating his provisions. So maybe it is not such a good idea to author a Trojan Horse.

As a metaphor, however, the Trojan Horse imagery works effectively. It captures the deceptive nature of the programs, and calls to mind the problem of hidden elements within the program which work against the purposes of the owner. It also implies that this program is something made by humans, not an organic, natural phenomenon as implied by the virus and worm metaphors.

A Trojan Horse named "Explore.Zip" made headlines in June, 1999. It was first detected in Israel, but in less than a week had spread around the world. It erased files on tens of thousands of corporate computers at AT&T, Boeing, General Electric, Microsoft, and perhaps others. (See Meyerson, 1999.)

This Trojan Horse arrived as an attachment to an e-mail message. The e-mail message came from the computer of someone you knew, and stated "I received your e-mail and I shall send you a reply ASAP. …

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