The goal of the research is to help predict where these bugs will spread next, and therefore allow ecologists to aim their limited resources in places that help prevent further invasion. This line of research, says MacIsaac, was born because he was “very unsatisfied with the models to predict the spread of invasive species,” which typically focus too heavily on the attributes of the species itself and not its movements, which are often influenced by outside forces.
Mark Buchanan, author of Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks, sees tremendous potential for investigating the parallels between such seemingly different networks.
“Whether you are talking about Internet viruses or real-world viruses, you should be aware of the network structure that influences where and when spreading is likely to take place,” Buchanan says. “In either case, you want to target your efforts at those hubs where most of the dispersal is centered.”
Studies have shown that even with human viruses, this is the most effective way to detect the outbreak of a new virus such as Avian flu. Once hubs have been identified, researchers must monitor heavily-trafficked locations from which it may be emanating, according to Buchanan.
But these arguments don’t necessarily hold water for some Internet virus experts, who say the analogies between technology and ecology in this case are strained at best.
“(The research) is a colossal waste of time and money,” says Vincent Gullotto, vice president for McAfee’s Anti-Virus Emergency Response Team (AVERT). He says such studies, which seek to draw conclusions from the Internet about how human viruses or ecological interlopers might spread, “are pretty thin” since the environments are so different.
For example, in the online world, viruses are written with a specific intent and attack a static number of machines, he says, whereas the natural environment is ever-changing. That fundamental difference – programming versus reaction – makes it impossible to conduct any true comparisons, says Richard Wang, manager of the U.S. virus lad for Sophos, a British-based firm that provides anti-virus software and services primarily to businesses.
“It’s a little unfortunate that people have preconceived ideas about what it means to ‘spread’ and ‘mutate’,” says Wang. “If you take the analogy too far, it breaks down.”
Ecological changes, even if influenced by man, Wang points out, are more “spontaneous” and thus not the same as the “deliberate act” of creating an Internet virus. While similar terms used in both ecology and the Internet may imply deeper similarities between the two worlds, Wang says “the systems aren’t really parallel.”
Nonetheless, other experts do see meaningful results that could be derived from such studies.
Ero Carrera, an anti-virus researcher with F-Secure Corp., believes that while there are major differences between real-world networks and their virtual counterparts, the basic rules of complexity theory can apply to everything from computer networks to crowds of people to the invasion of foreign insects.
“I think Internet viruses, being so far much simpler than any biological counterpart, provide an easy testbed and a comprehensible model to analyze and develop mathematical abstractions from,” Carrera says. “In all these cases, natural and virtual, when seen from afar, the same rules apply.”