The Cleverest Virus

The Astute Consumer and the Clever Hacker have been at it for ages. This week, the Astute Consumer has gone to the store and bought the new Totally Secure Computer, with the new Trusted Program Moderator, which makes it literally impossible to execute any program on the computer that hasn’t been signed by a trusted provider with their private signature.

What the Astute Consumer doesn’t know is that the Clever Hacker has found a weak spot in the computer’s design: the BIOS code is not signed, so the Clever Hacker has replaced the genuine certificate of authority for the computer with his own.

Now, here’s the really clever part: the Clever Hacker knows that if the computer steals the Astute Consumer’s credit card number on the first try, the Astute Consumer will realize the computer was compromised from day one, and take it back. But, if he’s able to make 99 transactions securely and the 100th one compromised, he will assume that the problem was on the other end. After all, he trusts his computer’s trusted authorities! They have done him right 99 times! Much easier for him to believe that the big box store’s online presence has been compromised than that his Totally Secure Computer, which has served him faithfully and securely, is ever not secure.

With any luck, the Consumer will cancel that credit card and get a new one (but not before the Clever Hacker has bought thousands of dollars of merchandise) and continue using his compromised computer. The Clever Hacker only need include a plausible delay between information thefts to maintain, for the Consumer, the illusion that his Totally Secure Computer actually is.

There are two parts to this exploit:
1. By getting in at a low enough level, anyone can become “trusted.”
2. By behaving well almost all of the time, you can easily convince the person you’re trying to fool that any bad behavior is actually coming from another actor.

Now here’s the clever part of this post: you may have thought I was talking about computers, but no, not really! I’m talking about religion.

Religion always seeks to get in at the lowest possible level: children. They may hold off on baptism until a slightly older age (though never the age of majority) but the indoctrination starts As Early As Possible. How soon after birth does a baby see his first picture of Jesus?

Religion also seeks to do people right most of the time. Individually, this is because people really do have the best of intentions and want to help people as much as possible. But institutionally, the motive is completely different: the institution does good things always and only in order to justify, excuse, and allow the bad things to continue. It does the minimum amount of good necessary to keep people coming back–to maintain trust in the eyes of its people–in order to maximize the bad it can do to people. It will only stop doing bad when faced with an existential crisis, either by driving too many people away, or under pain of sudden dissolution.

(This is one of the rare cases where it’s worth distinguishing between the church and its people, because in this case, the motivations of the whole have an emergent quality, rather than representing the motivations of all the individuals in aggregate. The church, as an entity, is motivated by the preservation of its own identity first and foremost; being right, looking good, absolving itself of responsibility, etc.)

For three years, I oversaw a small group of gay Mormons and former Mormons with weekly meetings and occasional special events. I met a lot of people in that time, and noticed a striking pattern: the desire to “reconcile” faith with sexuality seemed to be exactly inversely proportional to the severity of pain that had been inflicted on them at the hands of their church. We had people who would defend the church nearly to the death (they were most annoying) and refused to even hear the complaints of people who had actually been wronged by church leaders. There were those, on the other hand, who underwent shock treatment at BYU (yes, it happened, I’ve seen the scars on their arms) and who never wanted to see another LDS chapel, book, or person ever again–though most of them, predictably, stayed far away from our little group. The amount of hostility towards the church was completely predictable as a function of how hard the church had kicked them. The more frequent and severe the abuse was, the more likely the person was to revoke their trust of the church.

The church will continue its abusive behavior until it faces an existential crisis, such as a sufficiently large lawsuit, the loss of enough members (don’t try organizing for it; the scale required is much too large) or other colleges refusing to play against BYU because of their policies.

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