Computer viruses are never a good thing. But do you know where they came from? When did they first appear, and how did they become such a big problem?
In this article, we’ll uncover the story of the very first computer virus and the creative individuals behind it.
Computer Virus: Definition
A computer virus is a malicious piece of code that can replicate itself and spread to other computers, corrupting files and potentially causing damage to the system.
Computer viruses are malicious programs designed to cause harm to computer systems and data. They spread by attaching themselves to executable files, which results in the malicious code being executed when the file is opened. From there, the virus can spread itself through networks, external drives, file-sharing programs, and email attachments.
A computer virus’s end goal is to disrupt a system’s normal operations and cause data loss or leakage.
Theory of Self-Replicating Automata
In this paper, he imagined a sort of “mechanical” organism, like a computer code, that could harm machines, duplicate itself, and spread to new computers, similar to how a real virus spreads in biology.
History of Computer Virus
The following are a few widespread computer viruses from the early days:
The Creeper Program
According to Discovery, the Creeper program, often considered the first virus, was made in 1971 by Bob Thomas from BBN. Surprisingly, Creeper wasn’t meant to harm computers but to test if a program could copy itself.
It did this, but with a twist – it tried to leave the computer it infected when it found a new one. Creeper didn’t do anything harmful; it just showed a message saying, “I’M THE CREEPER. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN!”
As stated by InfoCarnivore, the Rabbit (or Wabbit) virus emerged in 1974, and unlike Creeper, it did have harmful intentions. This virus could make copies of itself and spread. When it infected a computer, it created many copies of itself, which slowed down the system a lot and eventually caused the computer to crash. The virus got its name from how quickly it replicated.
The First Trojan
Referred to as ANIMAL, the initial Trojan (although there’s some debate over whether it was truly a Trojan or possibly another virus) was crafted by computer programmer John Walker back in 1975, as stated by Fourmilab.
During this era, “animal programs” were all the rage, engaging users in a game of 20 questions to guess the animal they were thinking of.
The version Walker developed was in great demand, and sharing it with friends required creating and sending magnetic tapes. To simplify this process, Walker designed PERVADE bundled with ANIMAL. While users played the game, PREVADE scanned through all accessible computer directories and duplicated ANIMAL in any directory where it wasn’t already found.
Although there was no harmful purpose behind this, ANIMAL and PREVADE indeed met the description of a Trojan: Hiding within ANIMAL was an additional program that performed actions without the user’s consent.
Brain: The Boot Sector Virus
In 1986, the first PC virus, named Brain, started spreading through 5.2″ floppy disks. This virus was created by two brothers, Basit and Amjad Farooq Alvi, who owned a computer store in Pakistan.
They were frustrated because people were copying their software without permission. To stop this, they made Brain. This virus replaced a part of the floppy disk that helps start the computer but didn’t destroy any information. Brain virus was different from other viruses because it stayed hidden and had a secret message about copyright.
In the early 2000s, the introduction of fast and reliable broadband networks brought a big change in how malware moved around. Instead of being stuck on floppy disks or just inside company networks, malware could now spread super quickly through emails, popular websites, and even straight over the Internet.
This made a new kind of bad software called malware. It’s like an umbrella term that covers viruses, worms, and Trojans. Among these, the LoveLetter was a major problem. It showed up on May 4, 2000, and caused a serious epidemic during this new era.
According to Securelist, the LoveLetter virus followed a similar pattern as other email viruses from that time. However, it was different from the macro viruses that had been causing problems since 1995.
Instead of disguising itself as an infected Word document, LoveLetter arrived as a VBS file. It was quite simple and direct. Back then, people weren’t cautious about unsolicited emails, which made LoveLetter successful.
The email’s subject line was “I Love You,” and each email had an attachment named “LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU-TXT.vbs.” The creator of this virus, Onel de Guzman, designed it to replace existing files with copies of itself. Then, it used these copies to spread the virus to all the email contacts of the victims.
Because the message often came from someone the victims knew, they were more likely to open it. This made LoveLetter a clear example of how social engineering could be very effective in spreading malware.
Code Red Virus
The Code Red worm was a kind of worm that didn’t hide in computer files but lived in a computer’s memory. It didn’t try to infect files on the computer. Instead, it used a weakness in the Microsoft Internet Information Server to cause a lot of trouble.
It spread quickly by messing with how computers talk to each other, and it went all over the world in just a few hours. At some point, hacked computers were even used to attack the whitehouse.gov website and make it stop working.
In 2014, a significant virus named Heartbleed appeared and caused a big problem for Internet servers. Unlike other viruses or worms, Heartbleed happened because of a weakness in software called OpenSSL. Many companies around the world use this software to keep data safe.
OpenSSL sends out “heartbeats” to check if secure connections are working. People can ask OpenSSL to send back the same amount of data they sent—for example, just one byte.
If users say they’re sending the most they’re allowed, which is 64 kilobytes, but they only send a tiny bit, the server will send back the last 64 kilobytes of data it has stored in its memory. This information could contain usernames, passwords, and important secret codes. Security expert Bruce Schneier pointed this out.
Computer viruses have been a part of our awareness for over six decades, but what used to be just online mischief has swiftly transformed into cybercrime.
Worms, Trojans, and viruses are changing and becoming more advanced. Hackers, driven by motivation and clever tactics, continually push the boundaries of technology and code to create new ways to infect systems.
The future of cybercrime appears to involve more Point of Sale (PoS) hacks, and a recent example is the Moker remote access Trojan. This newly-discovered malware is hard to spot, remove, and can get around all known security defenses.
One thing is sure: change is constant in both the world of cyberattacks and cybersecurity.