Company backs off bounty for Mac OS X virus

A company-sponsored contest offering $25,000 for a Mac virus has been cancelled over concerns about legal liability.

A company that offered US$25,000 for the first virus that automatically spreads among Apple Computer computers running the OS X operating system cancelled the virus writing contest and retracted the offer of cash, citing concerns about legal liability.

DVForge said on Saturday that it would not offer cash for a Mac virus, after legal concerns were raised about the contest and in the wake of complaints from Apple security experts. The contest was announced Friday and was intended to raise awareness of what Jack Campbell, chief executive officer of DVForge, considers fear mongering by antivirus company Symantec which said last week that threats to the Apple platform were on the rise, Campbell said.

DVForge makes a variety of peripheral devices for Apple products, such as the "JamPod," a small guitar amplifier module that plugs into iPod portable music players and allows their owners to play along with the songs stored on the device. In addition to selling products for the Apple platform, the company uses Apple computers internally and is a bastion of Apple technology experts and loyalists, Campbell said.

The idea for a contest to create the first self-propagating virus for the OS X platform was the result of frustration over a widely publicized report from Symantec last week, which said that the Mac OS is increasingly a target for malicious activity that is more commonly associated with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows and Unix-based operating systems.

The Symantec warnings were baseless and intended only to "scare the hell out of people," Campbell said. Company employees, including Campbell, "lost our minds" when they read about Symantec's claims, and saw the report as a threat to DVForge's business, as much as Apple's.

The idea of a contest grew out of conversations with technical staff at DVForge last week and was intended to call Symantec's "bluff," Campbell said.

"We have just as much incentive as Apple to fight back," he said.

The company placed two G5 PowerMac computers running OS X 10.3 Panther on the Internet and issued a statement on its Web page that challenged Internet users to create a virus that would spread between the two machines on or before July 31, 2005. In a dig at Symantec, DVForge offered double the reward, US$50,000, to any employee of Symantec who won the contest, Campbell said.

Campbell was confident that the security features in OS X would prevent anyone from creating a self-propagating virus that moved between the two machines before the deadline expired, he said.

However, after word of the contest quickly spread online, Campbell was contacted by senior Apple employees who were experts on the security of OS X who said that it was possible to create such a virus, though doing so would be difficult. The Apple employees encouraged Campbell to end the contest. He was also contacted by an intellectual property attorney and Mac enthusiast, who warned him that writing a virus could be considered illegal, and that DVForge could be considered to be aiding and abetting an illegal activity by sponsoring the contest.

Worried about the prospect of embroiling his company in a legal battle, Campbell cancelled the contest Saturday. However, he also issued a strongly worded statement on the DVForge Web site that railed against Symantec and "the rest of the fear-breeding folks who (prey) on the lack of knowledge about how viruses work."

Companies such as his have a responsibility to take a stand on matters such as the relative security of operating systems, and to counter what he considers untruths, such as the often articulated opinion that the lack of viruses and worms that target the Mac platform is due to the relatively small number of Mac users, he said.

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