An 11-year-old Samsung Netbook infected with six computer viruses that have collectively inflicted an estimated $95 billion in global damages sold at auction this week for $1.345 million.
But the laptop, safely quarantined in a New York housing unit prior to the sale, isn’t a dangerous cyber weapon being exchanged between insidious individuals: Instead, the clunky device is an unusual work of art commissioned by cybersecurity firm Deep Instinct and executed by Chinese digital artist Guo O Dong at a cost of some $10,000.
Titled The Persistence of Chaos, the work strives to provide a physical manifestation of abstract digital threats. As Guo tells the Verge’s James Vincent, “We have this fantasy that things that happen in computers can’t actually affect us, but this is absurd. Weaponized viruses that affect power grids or public infrastructure can cause direct harm.”
According to artnet News’ Taylor Dafoe, most of the money needed to bring the project to life was funneled toward preventing the laptop from spreading its malware to other computers. Business Insider’s Antonio Villas-Boas explains that the device is air gapped, making it unable to connect with unsecured networks such as the internet, and has disabled USB ports.
In addition to taking extensive safety precautions, Guo and Deep Instinct had to establish certain terms for the sale. A disclaimer accompanying the auction lot states, “The sale of malware for operational purposes is illegal in the United States. As a buyer you recognize that this work represents a potential security hazard.”
The notice continues, “By submitting a bid you agree and acknowledge that you’re purchasing this work as a piece of art or for academic reasons, and have no intention of disseminating any malware.”
As Dafoe writes, Guo tasked computer engineers with installing the viruses, which are titled WannaCry, BlackEnergy, ILOVEYOU, MyDoom, SoBig and DarkTequila, onto the laptop. According to David Grossman of Popular Mechanics, WannaCry wrought havoc on English hospitals by rendering MRI machines and blood-storage refrigerators unusable in May 2017. (In financial terms, the virus caused the U.K.’s National Health Service around $100 million in damages.) ILOVEYOU, meanwhile, tricked victims by posing as a love letter—in actuality, it was a self-replicating computer worm capable of replacing all of a user’s files with copies of the bug—back in 2000.
Speaking with artnet News’ Dafoe, Guo calls The Persistence of Chaos an "exhibit of historical weaponry."
“We came to understand this project as a kind of bestiary, a catalogue of historical threats,” the artist adds in an interview with Vice’s Rob Dozier. “It’s more exciting to see the beasts in a live environment.”
For now, the buyer of this singularly dangerous work of art remains anonymous. Regardless of the new owner’s identity, Guo tells Dafoe that he plans on using the proceeds in one of two ways: Either he’ll put the funds toward a future artistic endeavor, or, in dramatic fashion perhaps more in tune with the tone of the overall project, he’ll simply throw the money into a fire and watch as it is reduced to ashes.