WannaCry. BlackEnergy. ILOVEYOU. MyDoom. SoBig. DarkTequila. If you are even slightly aware of the cyber security space, or have read a confusing post on Facebook about the vulnerability of your Windows PC, you’ve heard at least one of these names. They are some of the most destructive pieces of malware ever released into the connected world, causing nearly $100 billion in related damages. While some of them are still floating around in the wild, all six of them are currently sitting on a laptop currently being auctioned for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
This is the most dangerous laptop in the world. And it’s running Windows XP.
The singular laptop is an air-gapped Samsung NC10-14GB 10.2-Inch Blue Netbook (2008) running Windows XP SP3 and loaded with the malware and restart script. It also comes with a power cord, just in case the 11 year-old battery isn’t still holding a viable charge. It’s currently sitting on a white cube in a room somewhere in New York City and is being sold under the guise of art as “The Persistence of Chaos”. It’s certainly subversive and skirts the legalities of selling malware (it’s illegal to sell for operational purposes), but hey, anarchy is entertaining.
Also see: ‘Space Invaders’ The Board Game Celebrates 40 Years Of The Arcade Classic
The malware filled laptop is a collaboration between performance artist Guo O Dong, known for putting a hipster on a leash, and cyber security firm Deep Instinct.
On a base level the goal, if we believe light grey text on a white background, is to sell this malware infused laptop under the blanket of art for academic purposes. On a deeper level, it’s a statement of social anarchy, of controlled chaos and an exposé of how fragile our machine-connected lives really are.
It makes me think of that short-lived HBO series The Brink. First, in how like in the show, this reveals how close we constantly are to destruction by the press of a button and second, how it shouldn’t be put out into the world at all. This is especially worrying as the bidding for this laptop is already well over a quarter of a million dollars and climbing. The bidders are of course private, so go ahead and Bond villain your worst scenario.
Deep Instinct tells me that while the malware already exists or existed on the web, this laptop is totally secure and it isn’t releasing them, just parking them on an air-gapped laptop. They are confident that the laptop won’t be breached or the malware released, yet I can’t help but think that it’s entirely possible, based on the advancement of hacking techniques and Murphy’s Law. It’s like carrying around a box of feral, rabid marmots on the subway.
“I created The Persistence of Chaos because I wanted to see how the world responds to and values the impact of malware,” Dong tells me via email. I can’t speak for the world, but we respect the fear and confusion that comes with encountering malware in any form. Even apps that are supposed to be secure are vulnerable. Whatever value is assigned to the impact of malware is effectively drained by the reaction to it when it happens.
As for the intentions of a company that has built its entire business model on security, it is a little self serving. Deep Instinct is using the malware as an example of the past, a past that nearly brought the connected world to its knees, while itself representing the future of malware and virus protection. Again, box of marmots. Of course the person carrying the box is entirely confident the rabid animals are subdued and contained, but we’ve watched enough episodes of 24 and related television to know that just isn’t true. This is like the cold open of an episode of Black Mirror.
As the auction price of this malware filled laptop rises (which you can watch live here) so does the tension of the realization that this stuff still exists, persists and will continue to do so as long as we have computers, phones and any other device connected to the internet. But there’s life in the chaos, an energy of anarchy that we can feel flow through us. Let’s just hope in this case, the chaos stays contained and we can just treat this as a sociological thought experiment, not the thing that eventually causes the destruction of all the things.