The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Laptop with some of the world’s most destructive malware sold for $1.3 million

Artist Guo O Dong highlighted viruses that have caused more than $95 billion in economic damage

Artist Guo O Dong collaborated with the cybersecurity firm Deep Instinct to produce “The Persistence of Chaos,” meant to convey the kind of real-world damage malware can bring. (Matt Rourke/AP)
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An art patron has paid $1.3 million for the tech equivalent of a dormant land mine: a 2008 Samsung laptop containing some of the world’s most destructive malware.

The Persistence of Chaos,” as the work is known, was created by Chinese Internet artist Guo O Dong and commissioned by Deep Instinct, a New York-based cybersecurity firm. The company supplied the malware and collaborated with Guo to guard against the kind of real-world damage the project was designed to highlight.

"We have this fantasy that things that happen in computers can’t actually affect us, but this is absurd,” Guo told the Verge. “Weaponized viruses that affect power grids or public infrastructure can cause direct harm.”

The featured viruses have names that could be mistaken for pop songs but collectively have caused more than $95 billion in economic damage. The “WannaCry” ransomware attack of May 2017 was one of the biggest, affecting more than 200,000 computers in 150 countries and wreaking havoc on the National Health Service in Britain and Renault factories in France. “BlackEnergy” caused blackouts across Ukraine in December 2015. The oldest malware, “ILoveYou,” was an email attachment masquerading as a love letter that infected tens of millions of PCs in May 2000.

“These pieces of software seem so abstract, almost fake with their funny, spooky names, but I think they emphasize that the web and IRL [in real life] are not different spaces,” Guo told Vice.

Guo and Deep Instinct said they took steps to ensure the malware isn’t dangerous. The laptop is “air-gapped,” meaning it’s not directly connected to the Internet and cannot spread the viruses to other networks. Its Internet capabilities will be disabled before it is shipped to the winning bidder.

Malware includes viruses, worms, spyware, ransomware and other malicious code designed to extract personal information or inflict damage. In November, Marriott International disclosed a data breach that exposed the personal information of more than 500,000 customers, making it one of the biggest such incidents in history. And this month, a cyberattack that used a leaked tool from the National Security Agency wreaked havoc on Baltimore.

The economic toll is significant: In 2018, the White House Council of Economic Advisers estimated that malicious cyber activity costs the U.S. economy as much as $109 billion a year. Worldwide, the annual cost is closer to $600 billion, according to a 2017 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the cybersecurity company McAfee.

Guo first made headlines with his art in 2017, with a piece of performance art involving the artist riding a Segway while walking a hipster on a leash through the streets of Brooklyn.