Creator of Rick Astley iPhone worm threatened

By Louisa Hearn
Updated November 5 2012 - 11:26pm, first published November 13 2009 - 12:31am
Creator of Rick Astley iPhone worm threatened
Creator of Rick Astley iPhone worm threatened

When 21-year-old Ashley Towns released the very first iPhone virus from his home in Wollongong a week ago he was not anticipating death threats, media interviews or job offers. But he says he got all three in one day after an audacious viral security "experiment" got out of hand, pushing Rick Astley's face onto hundreds of iPhone screens and making headlines around the world.It all began when Towns was downloading programs for writing iPhone applications.

  • Rick Astley iPhone worm sparks global debate "I was reading a blog that said in bold letters to change your passwords and I wondered how many had."It turned out that most of the people on his network had not."So I started writing it from there. I stayed up all night and when I was half asleep I decided to test it. "I didn't really think about legal consequences at the time. I honestly never expected it to go this far."I thought it would spread to no more than 10 or 15 people.”Towns's virus is technically classified as a worm and works by resetting the phone wallpaper to display an image of Rick Astley (a practice known as rickrolling) on "jailbroken" iPhones that have been altered to run non-Apple approved applications.To date it has only affected those on the Optus network.Since his name was linked to the virus, Towns says things have been "crazy". "A lot of random people have been making threats and someone even figured out my mobile number and published it online".Although he speaks with remorse about its creation, Towns's new-found notoriety has already netted him a job interview with an iPhone application developer who learnt of his escapade through the media.He has just completed a network administration course at TAFE, but he says it was not his intention to benefit in this way from the virus and confirms this is the only opportunity he is pursuing.Towns claims he wanted to make a point about iPhone network security and, although the police have not yet come knocking on his door, he has received plenty of abuse, a number of threats from unknown persons and been vilified in a spoof online encyclopaedia entry. "What I have learnt is to think more before I act," he says.Breaking it to his family was not easy, he admits."My parents were definitely shocked at first. I told them 'I think I messed up somewhere.' "They didn't really understand and then I went to my room and they Googled it and said: 'What have you done?'"When it comes to the law, many would argue that the very act of creating a virus that invades someone else's property is a crime, but the consensus from security experts is that police are unlikely to act unless there is lasting damage or cost resulting from Towns's actions. While there are plenty of instructions for removing the virus online, many iPhone users are now waiting to see if it affected their data download limits, which could result in extra billing charges.Hundreds of posts on the Whirlpool forum have been dedicated to the virus, with many members directly affected by it and numerous others expressing their views."I imagine there's lots of people that just think 'Oh, I've got this wallpaper and I can't change it', leave it at that, and then find they've got a massive bill for data at the end of the month. I really hope the police don't just laugh this off," one forum user said.Even so, in an online poll run by Sophos in response to the incident, it emerged that that 75 per cent of the 721 respondents believed Towns had done "iPhone users a favour". In contrast, some members of the Australian "hactivist" community have condemned his actions.One member, whose pseudonym is V, said: "This guy has done something malicious then gone to the press to say 'Hey look what I did.' Then when he has been caught out he has back peddled once he has realised the significance of what he has done."Another accusation is that Towns's virus is not his own work, owing to similarities to a recent attack in the Netherlands in which a Dutch hacker took over similarly vulnerable iPhones and demanded a small fee to release their data.Although this attack was not viral, V claims Towns borrowed heavily from it."One of the big things he messed up is that it won't stop running. It has no deadline to it, and most viruses will have a finite run," he said.Trend Micro Threat Researchers confirmed today that Towns's source code is now publicly available, meaning that modification of the code to work on other countries' networks was "certainly possible".Although this virus can only affect jailbroken phones, V says this practice is far more common than people might believe."It's the elephant in the room. Everyone jailbreaks their iPhones. There is all the other functionality on other smartphones that you can't get unless you jailbreak it," he said.It is difficult to estimate how many iPhone users in Australia have been affected by the virus but Paul Ducklin, head of technology at Sophos Asia Pacific, says the number could be in the hundreds."There is no such thing as a good worm by definition. Because of self replication you always end up losing control," he said.
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