Could the government really destroy downloaders computers?

From this Great Debates thread:
Orrin Hatch has the idea to destroy computers remotely. Is this possible now? Could the technology be developed in the future? How would it work?

Put it this way- if it were indeed possible, malicious hackers would be doing it already just for kicks.

Firewalls, antivirus software and other protective measures are designed to prevent unwanted access to one’s PC, and thus prevent damage and tampering.

If it were somehow government-mandated, they’d essentially have to convince everyone to install some Official BackDoor Access ™ software, and you can bet that somebody will have a block for it within minutes.

All it shows is that Hatch has not the least clue how PCs work, and is largely ignorant of the legal side as well.

If the stories about Microsoft Palladium are accurate, yes.

I read in the Washington Post about a month or so ago that one of the other options to deter people from downloading music/videos/etc was to have the software vendors of the ftp programs (Kazaa, Imesh, LimeWire) integrate a search that would destroy media material on a pc (mp3, mpeg, etc). But one of the problems with that is the search program might destroy the legal copies of music files (the ones that have been ripped off a CD that the person paid for).

It’s not the U.S. gov’t that’d be doing this, it would be private copyright holders doing it with the consent of gov’t. This is because it’s somehow wrong for them to be doing it, but not for everyone else.

I wrote a bunch more, but it looked like it belonged in the pit, so I’ll just include this link here.

I wouldn’t worry too much though. “Destroying” someone’s computer remotely has been my dream since my spam count went over 1 per day, and I’ve yet to make it happen.

P.S. - that Post article sounds amazingly uninformed. I can count the number of people who would install russian-roulette style software like that on one hand with fingers to spare.

He must get his information from the Weekly World News.

Weekly World News * rocks * - seriously… Apparently they caught a mer-man in the south pacific.


This crazy planet…


It is not possible to physically damage a computer without physical access to the system.

That’s not necessarially true.

If your motherboard allows you to overclock your processor through software, then I imagine a virus could be created that would overclock your processor without you knowing it. If your heatsink and/or fan are not up to par, then excessive overclocking can damage the processor. Thus, a processor-frying virus.

I think the old C= Pet had a bad opcode that would permenantly destroy the processor (6502-style I think). But you’re probably not going to see a Pet on the internet, although some of those wacky enthusiasts have their C=64’s on the net!

In any case, there’s always the beauty of Linux to prevent anyone from doing anything to your computer. Not that Linux in and of itself is more secure for its mere nature, but you have the source code and no one can control it. So there’s the potential that there will never be a way to allow someone else to destroy your computer.

(No, I’m not a Linux evangelist, but after a 4-5 year hiatus from Linux, it’s quickly becoming interesting how useable it is).

That would be interesting. If you didn’t notice that a virus was present on your system and you picked up a new MB/Processor, it would just happen again, and again and …

Hmm… I got this off another message board and can’t vouch for its feasibility except for #3, but…

  1. Crank up the voltage beyond a supported level & fry the computer.
  2. Crank up the refresh rate on the monitor to set it on fire after it runs a while.
  3. Erase the BIOS.

dre2xl… Erase the BIOS??
How exactly, I’m intrigued. Last I knew if you change the bios, for example flashing an award bios into an intel, it just resets.

There were a lot of opcodes on a lot of old 8 bit computers that would cause the computer to crash, lockup, or do very weird things, but I’m not aware of any that would actually damage the processor.

It was supposedly possible to damage a Pet by repeatedly writing to the exact same video location in a tight loop. This would cause the video ram chip to overheat.

I can think of quite a few ways to damage a computer if you can get software to run on it (i.e. a virus). None of these would require physical access to the system:

Many computers over the years were not very tolerant of software that would slam the hard drive head repeatedly to one side. Older hard drives could be thrown out of alignment. I think newer ones are immune to this sort of abuse.

Early versions of linux allowed users to set up video signals that would slowly kill some monitors. Again, I don’t think modern equipment is vulnerable to this problem.

It’s theoretically possible to flash garbage into the BIOS, which would render a motherboard un-bootable. Many motherboards have a recovery jumper you can set which would allow you to re-flash the BIOS, but on a lot of motherboards the only solution is to pull out the BIOS and flash it in a prom burner (which techno-geeks like myself have access to, but the common computer user doesn’t).

Overclocking due to setting configuration bits was previously mentioned.

Many PCI cards (including the ones that I’ve designed) have their PCI configuration stored in a flash ROM (basically the same sort of thing as the BIOS chip) that is accessable over the PCI bus. This means that it is possible to reprogram the PCI configuration for the card so that your computer wouldn’t recognize it any more. It’s also possible to specify the resources needed for the card in such a way to completely confuse the PCI BIOS and make the system unable to boot as long as the screwed up card is physically installed in the machine.

While the argument for deleting illegally copied files is a gray area (consider that it’s perfectly legal for the government to destroy illegal marijuana plants without compensation), deleting non-pirated files or wrecking the computer is unconstitutional under the fifth amendment:

There was the (mythological) PDP opcode HCF, for Halt & Catch Fire.

Deleting the BIOS would only be possible under the right circumstances. BIOS protection is pretty high end access. My board cannot be flashed until I change a CMOS setting.

Also, if CPU voltage/clock speed changes were accessable to a virus I’m sure we’d already have herd of such a thing. The virus would die immediately as infection would stop as soon as a few computers were hit. Even a “legal” virus would be detected rather quickly.

BTW, many MBs will stop the system if the CPU gets too hot (or just crash). Unless you physically remove the heat sink (my friend once turned on an Athlon 1700 without any heat sink by accident for 2 seconds and it fried).

I cannot see how you can effectively kill a computer remotely without some serious remote access tools (like PC anywhere) and many people are set up to detect such access. This is mostly uneducated dreaming on part of the government.

Also, MB makers I’m sure would just fight back and bring CPU/Voltage and other settings back to the DIP switch age.

Halt and Catch Fire opcodes existed, or were joked to exist, on numerous machines, not just the PDPs. In the Motorola 6800, for example, the HCF was a real opcode that would toggle some of the bus line as fast as it could, potentially causing them to burn up. Voila, an opcode that can cause hardware damage.

That having been said, Orrin Hatch is speaking out of his ass. Even if we accept a broad interpretation of the term destroy, it’s still not possible to write a program that will reformat a hard drive, for example, under all operating systems and hardware architectures. Old Orrin has no idea in hell what he’s talking about.

It’s a truly moronic idea and would be illegal.

An analogy :

You have a minor car accident. No-one’s hurt, slight damage to both cars. It looks like you might have been to blame and maybe you were being a bit careless. Therefore the other driver is allowed by law to get out his car and smash your car up with a hammer.

Not going to happen, is it? Something about rights to a trial and innocent until proven guilty.

Extremely poor analogy that has no relevance to the situation.

Better one: Cops find stolen merchandise in your possession. Cops confiscate stolen merchandise.

Remember, unless there’s some sort of digital rights management (like that new Apple download site), if it’s on your computer, it’s not legally your property.