A Blast from the Past. Part III – Back to the Future – a Virus Remake.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Er, no. It wasn’t all that long ago, not all that far away, and was in no way connected with Star Wars. As Tony Montana once said, shall we “walk in and start over?”

Ok: Once – ten years ago – in the not-so-far-away city of Prague, the British antivirus magazine Virus Bulletin held its annual conference. In early 2001 the event was going through all the usual planning stages a conference of its sort needs to, and all was going to plan when, suddenly…

… suddenly Helen Martin, the editor-in-chief of the magazine, writes to me and unexpectedly suggests I speak at the conference, and not just to say a few words about this or that, but to give a full-blown keynote presentation. That is, to open the conference in front of an audience of 300+ delegates, made up of some of the brightest minds in the antivirus industry. Well, the renown of Virus Bulletin was quite something even back then. A mention on one of its pages was considered either good luck or good work, but a presentation at one of their gigs – that was simply an honor!

Photo by Iulian Ursu via Flickr

Photo by Iulian Ursu via Flickr

Around that time I was already giving loads of interviews (for example, at CeBIT I was giving sometimes dozens of interviews a day), but to speak in front of such a large and authoritative crowd was something different. Indeed, I was pretty much blown away by Helen’s invitation to speak. I read it again and understood that it was a unique chance to raise the profile of the company, not only in the antivirus industry, but also beyond its borders. In short, the event promised to be pretty darn important to us.

But what was I to speak about? First, it was clear straight away that it shouldn’t be just another regular, vacuous keynote speech, it needed to be a sensation! Second, it was clear that the format of the speech needed to be no less than a show. And third, to come up with a suitable show for a serious antivirus conference, the topic needed to be chosen very carefully. Something engaging, entertaining, not too trashy, and without the hexadecimal, disassemblers, and so on. So I got down to some serious brainstorming for a suitable theme.

Prague VB 2001

Thankfully, the task of coming up with a good topic for my presentation was solved relatively quickly. As I recall, Andy Nikishin suggested doing it based on the Back to the Future trilogy, but with a slightly modified script.

The concept went something like this: First of all, the time-machine is not the all stainless-steel DeLorean, but a laptop – a time-laptop! So, an evil hacker installs a backdoor Trojan onto this laptop and keeps track of the travelers who journey into the future. There (in the future), the nasty hacker steals the book “A Hundred Years History of the NASDAQ”, makes a pile, and does lots of other nasty things to the course of history. The travelers go back in time – to present-day –  and hardly recognize the place! Among other things that have changed beyond recognition are the fates of the most famous antivirus experts of the day – Vesselin Bontchev, Péter Ször, and Mikko Hyppönen. Because of the change in the course of history caused by the hacker, they all dramatically changed their formerly well-known occupations. The first became a fisherman based in Iceland, the second – a bodybuilder, and the third – a formula one racing driver. And I turn out to be the owner of the “Kaspersky’s Arms” pub! All this is presented via rather entertaining collages, which during the show were met with whoops of laughter by an increasingly relaxed and less formally-oriented audience.

As a result of these disastrous career moves, no one is left to protect the world from computer viruses in the future-present, and so the cyber-crooks turn the Internet into… well nothing like what we have today. So all that’s left is for Doc (yours truly) and Marty (Andy) to go back in time and save the whole of history “as is”. The story continues, similarly to the original script, but along the way the story of the history of computers and viruses is told.

In all, the presentation went very well. The crowd was almost incessantly roaring with laughter during our “show”, and after many came up and thanked us for the most unusual opening of a rather serious conference.

And for desert today – a selection of photos from the Prague gig.

And here is the official report on the conference by Virus Bulletin.

But that’s not the end of the story.

On the way back to Moscow, a rather curious a little incident took place at the security check at the airport. We had hired in Moscow from good friends of ours an ancient laptop of gargantuan proportions (it was our “time machine”) with an eight-inch diskette drive (via which the Trojan-backdoor was installed, later to be destroyed with a magnet). It was so old and decrepit it wouldn’t even turn on! And if you’ll notice the date of the conference – it was just a few months after 9/11. At this time security measures were higher than ever in airports. And one thing that was checked was laptops to see if they actually worked.

Anyway, at the security check at the airport in Prague, they of course rightly ask me to turn on the laptop. I have to come up with some kind of explanation that it doesn’t turn on and it’s just a prop for a presentation at a conference on viruses, etc. I sense a lack of understanding (“viruses?”). I explain myself once again. I sense suspicion. I sense trouble. But then I re-word my explanation, while getting out my eight-inch diskette, and announce that I read a lecture about the history of computers. It worked!

PS: Looking back ten years I understand that ponytails are things that come and go (Mikko at VB2001)!

Useful links:
A Blast from the Past. Part I – the Pack-shot Odyssey
A Blast from the Past. Part II – the AV Artefact

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    QWErty – Kirill

    Prague is my favorite city!!!! Many and many locations for photographers.

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