‘It’s like buying an old gun’
Would you like to buy a laptop from 2008 that’s had its insides pumped with the most deadly viruses ever conceived? That’ll be one million pounds please! Despite the fact that malware is avoided like the plague by most people, a laptop loaded with six of the world’s most toxic cyber bugs has genuinely sold for that price ($1,345,000) in an online auction.
“The Persistence of Chaos” by internet artist Guo O Dong, is a standard 2008 Samsung notebook running Windows XP, and serves as a host for the most venomous computer worms known to man. The laptop is isolated and “air gapped” to stop the spreading of the malware coursing through its hard drive – elements of which were responsible for the 2017 cyberattack on the NHS which cost the service upwards of £92m and led to 19,000 appointment cancellations.
A Twitch livestream of the work in its quarantined display was given as proof of its infection while bidding took place. It’s still running but now shows a ‘sold’ sign where the laptop once sat.
Despite the viruses having names that you might find on nihilistic 4chan threads (MyDoom, SoBig, WannaCry, Dark Tequila and ILOVEYOU) they’ve collectively caused damages of up to $95bn (£75bn), according to notes attached to the work. But arguably the most concerning is BlackEnergy – a strand of malware capable of hacking high-security industrial control systems to cause physical damage in the real world – an early form of which known as Stuxnet caused physical disruption to Iran’s nuclear program in 2010.
International cybersecurity firm DeepInstinct commissioned Guo to produce the work, which he calls “a kind of bestiary – a catalogue of historical threats.” He told The Verge in an interview: “We have this fantasy that things that happen in computers can’t actually affect us, but this is absurd… weaponised viruses that affect power grids or public infrastructure can cause direct harm.” Great news then, that he’s decided to pack this devastating world-destroying power into a cheap laptop and sell it in a public auction.
How much risk does this piece really pose? Is it genuinely riddled with historic computer infections that or just a bust up old laptop? Digital Privacy expert at ProPrivacy, Ray Walsh, tells Dazed: “I'm sure it's real and I'm sure it will have all the viruses on it.” And, he says, as long as you don't stick a USB stick into it or connect it to the internet “it's perfectly safe,” mainly due to the fact that security systems have now updated to protect against the dormant threats locked inside. “It's kind of like buying an old gun,” he adds, “or a decommissioned mine, in a way.”
Although contained for now, the code that's done damage in the past is still there. Ray says: “there's no reason why whoever bought this laptop couldn't go ahead, take that code, improve it, and come up with a brand new version. Whether there would be much point buying the laptop for such a large amount of money, that begs the question, because I bet you anything I could hop on the dark web, and get copies of these viruses anyway.”
Speaking to Dazed, the artist behind the work, Guo O Dong, says that it “emphasises that internet and IRL are the same place. Placing these pieces of malware, which we may ordinarily think of as remote processes happening somewhere on the network but, surely, not to us, into this one crappy old laptop concretizes them.”
The artist splits his time between New York and Beijing, but says he usually describes himself as “just being based online” – as if his soul has left the trappings of the physical body to exist permanently on the internet – “Maybe also when we store our files in The Cloud we should watch a livestream of a computer in a windowless room in North Carolina or wherever.”
“I wanted to infect something that I had personally used,” says Guo when asked if the shitty old laptop he chose for the piece had any bearing outside being a shitty old laptop, “There’s no historical import to that model.” But the viruses themselves have significance, chosen for the “monetary damages” they caused and their recognisability. “There was some constraint to select viruses that could all run on the same computer and operating system,” Guo adds, “since they range in time period over a decade.”
Incredibly, Guo tells Dazed that the $1,345,000 sale price is legit and is currently being processed: “it’s real and we’re sorting out paperwork,” although he can’t reveal any further information about the buyer at this stage. “This has been a crazy experience and far beyond what I expected,” he adds, “malware and cybersecurity are not typically the focus of my work, however I am always working to create pieces that are intended to live on and engage with the internet.”