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Stupid question from stupid exam

Wendy Gibbons

Joined: Oct 21, 2008
Posts: 1107

We were all made to do an information security training course at work, one of the questions on the exam was
" hardware doesn't get infected with viruses true or false" being the bunch of geeks we are this conversation took about 1 hour up.
I can't even remember what the supplied answer was, I was just wondering about you lots view on this question...
Jelle Klap

Joined: Mar 10, 2008
Posts: 1951

Hardware doesn't get infected by a computer virus. Firmware possibly, but that's still software.

Build a man a fire, and he'll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he'll be warm for the rest of his life.
Jeanne Boyarsky
author & internet detective

Joined: May 26, 2003
Posts: 33106

False. A virus is written in code. Even OS or assembly code. But not the physical device.

What was the counter-argument for true?

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Pat Farrell

Joined: Aug 11, 2007
Posts: 4659

It is a truly stupid question. In any grad-level class, you should be able to argue all semester over this. It is a philosophy question, not a technical one.


  • What is hardware?
  • What is software?
  • How can you tell them appart?

  • For instance, is a FPGA hardware or software? I will agree that 40+ years ago, it was fairly easy to tell, as hardware was made of transistors or LSI chips, and software was loaded onto hardware. But most hardware has not been made of TTL chips since the 1980s. One way that AMD beat Intel at performance in the late 1990s was that AMD didn't bother to try to speed up the X86 design, which had by that time grown into a crock of patches and kludges. Instead AMD had a RISC micro-engine in its CPUs that executed the equivalent of the X86 instructions. What controlled the micro-engine? How about software. But it was the CPU? How was the CPU defined? By the instruction set, not by how it executed the instructions.

    The great Alan Turning proved that hardware and software are isomorphic. This equivalence has been the foundation of Computer Science since WW2.
    Wendy Gibbons

    Joined: Oct 21, 2008
    Posts: 1107

    As the course was so stupid and wooly at one point it was talking about USB sticks being a virus threat, but it isn't the stick it is the software on it, so was this question an extension of that, by infected did they mean living on ie the disk drive?
    Pat Farrell

    Joined: Aug 11, 2007
    Posts: 4659

    Wendy Gibbons wrote:As the course was so stupid and wooly at one point it was talking about USB sticks being a virus threat.

    Wow, that is a huge leap. That means any "hardware" that stores data is a virus threat. Could be @wendy's USB stick, or a hard disk, or a network card, or a floppy disk.

    My first real exposure to a virus was in the early 90s while I was in grad school. Students used a huge lab of computers, and 5-1/2" floppies were the only way to store programs. Unknown to me, nearly all of the machines in the lab were infected, so as soon as I inserted a floppy, a nice boot sector virus jumped on. But the course's definitions, was the hardware, the floppy, the threat?
    Paul Clapham

    Joined: Oct 14, 2005
    Posts: 19973

    If I'm not mistaken, the Stuxnet virus was transferred into those Iranian computers via USB sticks. (I just looked and Wikipedia says that.)

    So yeah, you could say a USB stick is a virus threat. Just like an airplane was a possible vector for carrying BSE back in the days of mad cow disease.

    But I just used a technical term -- "vector" -- which specifically means, in biology and public health, something which transmits a disease from one host to another. It's possible to discuss computer security in such terms.
    Greg Charles

    Joined: Oct 01, 2001
    Posts: 2968

    That reminds me of the most esoteric riddle I've ever heard:

    What do you get when you cross a mosquito with a mountain climber?
    Nothing, you can't cross a vector with a scalar.

    Actually, that comes in second. First is:

    Who was Which Tyler?
    Leader of the Pedants' Revolt

    (I couldn't even understand that one without a lengthy explanation.)
    fred rosenberger
    lowercase baba

    Joined: Oct 02, 2003
    Posts: 11955

    by some extension, couldn't you then say that a keyboard is a virus threat? I mean, I can sit at a keyboard and put a virus on a machine by writing it then running it. Or would I be the virus threat?

    There are only two hard things in computer science: cache invalidation, naming things, and off-by-one errors
    Deepak Bala

    Joined: Feb 24, 2006
    Posts: 6662

    What is hardware?
    What is software?
    How can you tell them apart?

    Precisely my train of thought when I saw the question.

    Firmware possibly, but that's still software.

    Yep, I began to delve about firmware too. If a virus in the firmware causes the device to malfunction, is that hardware itself infected by a virus since the hardware is useless without the firmware ? Technically - no, but you can argue so.

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