04.10.13

Happy birthday: 31 years to the computer virus

Thirty-one years ago, in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pa. , a boy in the ninth grade, Richard Skrenta decided it is not enough for him to put glue on lockers of friends or pick on some weaker kid. No, not Skrenta. He wanted to take his antics to a different level.

To understand what was the trick he invented, and how this stunt affects us today, you need to understand the times in which he lived. In 1982, just like today, people loved to exchange games. Only the computer itself was then in its infancy, the Internet was the preserve of a few university laboratories if any, and the idea of sharing “in the air” was a kind of science fiction. So what was then? There were black disks, the kind that older people may remember that they were called “floppy”.

Skrenta, as you may have deduced yourself, was also playful and cheeky. He did not hesitate to pass to friends disks with games, but before he did he always add a few lines of code. At first it was not particularly harmful things, especially mocking messages about the friend who received and used the floppy disk.

But then came the winter break, and again, Skrenta was bored. So he wanted to explore the possibility to write code that copies itself to the computer as soon as you insert the floppy in, and will by itself be dropped in the next floppy. Yes, yes, you understand correctly. 15-year-old invented the first computer virus, and it happened 31 years ago.

Want more nice Trivia item? Happily. This first virus, he wrote using his Apple 2 computer, so in fact the first virus, opening the destruction chain for many PCs, was actually intended for Mac.

This 400 lines of code virus was named Elk Cloner, and was clearly harmless. If the user was infected, the virus began to count how many times he boots up his computer, and any multiple of 50 would play a nice song describing the virus and its concept.

By the way, the Elk Cloner was considered the first computer virus because it was the first to switch between computers that are not connected to each other, however it is was not the first malicious software. This title may be granted with “honor” to the Creeper virus that has been developed in 1971, and spread itself among the PDP-11 computers that were connected to the ARPANET network – the ancient web of U.S. Department of Defense developed. Computers were damaged, as part of the experiment, were granted to see the lovely message “I’m the Creeper, Catch Me If You Can”.

Many years have passed since then, and viruses, unfortunately, no longer compose songs and harmless fun.
As part of the dear virus birthday celebrations, I’ve decided to write  on some of the famous, interesting, funny and evil viruses humanity ever known:

Morris worm

In 1988, Robert Morris developed the first worm – the Morris worm – while he was a graduate student at Cornell. This is not the only history in this context by Morris. Because of the worm he developed infected many computers, he was the first person in the world convicted under the U.S. Computer Fraud Law.

Love letter
In 2000, it turns out, we were still innocent. Millions of people have made the mistake that no one is even considering doing today, and opened a file attached to an email with the title “I love you”. Unfortunately, they did not find anonymous letters of admiration or embarrassing pictures of guys from high school. Instead, they let a malware take over their image files. Since this is essentially a chain letter virus, it did not wait to be sent, but it sent itself on its own automatically to the first 50 addresses in the address book of Windows.

Code Red
Compared to viruses now known cruel, 2001 “Code Red” is no more than a lovely worm. The greatest success of this network virus that can be attributed to computers managed to overthrow the White House, and caused more American government offices to take down their web sites until it passes. Although, as mentioned, this was a child’s game compared to what we have today, “Code Red” will always be remembered for the rapid spread and the sow panic it managed to cause among users (not to mention the economic damage caused – nearly 200 million dollars per day).

Nimda
2001, it turns out, was a good year to viruses. Not only the “Code Red”, but also “Nimda”, came into the world that year. This is one of the most lethal combinations of worm, virus and Trojan horse – all types of trouble imaginable. Effects of this virus was so great, that within just one hour since being released into the world it managed to break the records for spreading and reached millions of computers around the world.

Pfizer
Check your Spam box for a moment. As it is full of all sorts of strange emails calling you to buy Viagra, and other such trouble? Your thanks should be directed to Pfizer, the world’s first worm programmed for financial gain. In the past, viruses were distributed for the distribution itself, then, in 2003, it was proved that it is possible to develop them for commercial use as well. Although Pfizer spread relatively slowly, it made any computer to send e-mails with dubious drug products advertisement. As noted, the relatively slow expansion was probably the reason why you may not heard scattered about this worm, but about its successor, SoBig, you have heard: It’s the same principle of distribution, only this time it was so quick and comprehensive that Microsoft offered a $250,000 reward to anyone who brings to the arrest of its developer.

PoisonIvy
2005 was also a milestone in the world of viruses. This is the first time across the world with a virus which is actually a “Trojan horse remote control”, which allows a total takeover of the infected computer, which includes the possibility of using the camera and microphone, and record audio and video files. At first thought it was no more than a trick of some students in China, but soon it was realized that the sophisticated attack could harm dozens of Western companies, including those in the defense industries.

Leap
This is not the most vicious virus, and financial damage caused because of it is certainly not the worse, but there was tremendous importance to the Leap virus, AKA Oompa – it was the first virus managed to hit Mac OSX. The virus began to spread itself in 2006, using the built-in chat software (iChat at the time, today’s Messanger), scanned the email addresses in the user’s address book, and sent itself. As mentioned, the damage was not very big, but it was definitely a wakeup call to Mac users who were certain (then and now) viruses can not harm them.

Zeus
The first malware resembling those we know today, came into existence in 2007, and was named after the Greek father of the gods. What does it do? Let you break into databases, and create fake network personalities that can be bought on the black market for ridiculous amount of half a dollar.

Agent
In 2008, viruses have become a private issue of national problem for computer users in the United States, when Agent sat on the Pentagon’s computers and mined lots of data. This led to a major panic in the Pentagon, which then prohibited the use of external drives on all the computers in the office. In addition, it led to the establishment of a new military unit – the U.S. Cyber Command. This is not the most sophisticated or vicious spyware, but it had put the cyber warfare on the map of the military strategy.

Stuxnet
A year has passed, and the United States (or Israel?), decided to take cyber warfare one step further and created a virus that does not focus on stealing virtual identities, but causing real harm in the real world. The virus, which aims to create damage in control systems was written specifically to attack Iranian uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. The virus could cause a large number of centrifuges to stop functioning and even eliminate themselves.