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The Evolution of the Computer Virus

Computer viruses have been plaguing individuals, organizations and government agencies for the past 40 years. Evolving over time, these viruses have kept pace with the newest advances in technology, much to the consternation of information technicians who work to keep networks and systems safe. With a rise in technological advances, society increasingly becomes at risk for hackers or other forms of cyber-attacks. Identifying how computer viruses have grown over time helps the unsung heroes of systems information keep our data safe.

The First Viruses: Experiments and Theories

Mathematician John von Neumann first theorized the concept of a computer virus in the late 1940s and published an article on his theory in 1966. His vision of a virus was as a self-replicating automatic entity and in 1971 the Creeper Virus, the first real computer virus, was exactly that. An entire program, nicknamed the Reaper Program, was designed by information security professionals to prevent the Creeper Virus from copying itself into systems and halting the ability to process.

A high school student programmed the first personal computer virus in 1981, named The Elk Cloner, as a practical joke and spread it via floppy disc. The virus was attached to a computer game for the Apple DOS system, a computer system that was very vulnerable to infection due to its storage capabilities. The Elk Cloner is considered the first major computer virus outbreak in history, primarily because the public was not educated or familiar with the concept of viruses.

The First PC/DOS Virus: Harmless Stealth Inspires Malice

Several years later, in 1986, the first virus to specifically attack PCs via the DOS system was recorded. The virus, known as The Brain or the Pakistani Flu, was created by two brothers from Pakistan, Basit Farooq Alvi and Amjad Farooq Alvi; in later years, the brothers would claim they designed the program as a security mechanism to protect other software from piracy.

The Brain virus was essentially harmless; it was floppy disk-based and worked by increasing its code volume each time the host program was run. The result was floppy disks would fill up and be rendered unusable, though to the user it would appear like little or nothing was stored on the disk. No permanent damage was done.

The Brain was remarkable because, as security technologist Bruce Scheiner notes, in addition to being the first PC-specific virus, it was also the first stealth virus. The Brain was designed to hide itself by attaching to relatively unused code, making it invisible to consumer-accessible debug programs. An additional notable factor about The Brain is that it inspired information technicians at IBM to release the first anti-virus software for public use in 1987.

The Brain is extinct today, however in spite of its harmless nature it spawned a class of malicious viruses, known as Master Boot Record Viruses (MBRs), that overwrite existing data on the disk or hard drive with “null” each time they were opened. One of the most famous MBRs was the Michelangelo Virus that broke out in Australia and Europe in 1991. It was referred to as the Michelangelo Virus because every year on March 6, Michelangelo’s birthday, it would activate and overwrite a portion of code and lay dormant for the rest of the year. For several years after the outbreak, consumers were warned not to turn on their computers on March 6 to prevent issues.

The 1990s – 2000s: Viruses Turn Dangerous

Prior to 1988, most computer viruses were just annoyances and relatively harmless. However, in 1988, the first truly dangerous computer virus, called the Festering Hate virus, was released infecting Apple operating systems. Instead of just stalling computer function, this virus infected every file on the hard drive, floppy disks, and memory drives and eventually destroyed all files. In 1989, a new kind of virus, called the Ghostball, became the first threat to capture certain user information.

In 2000, a Filipino computer science student created the “ILOVEYOU” worm that infected millions of Microsoft operating systems within a few hours of its release. In 2003, the SQL Slammer worm spread so quickly that is caused the internet to crash within 15 minutes of its release.

In 2007, a Trojan virus named Zeus attacked windows programs and became one of the first viruses to capture banking information by tracking keystrokes. In 2012, a virus named Flame became one of the first pieces of malware to be involved in cyber espionage.

Protect Yourself From Viruses

It is clear that computer viruses are not only increasing in number, but also in their severity and what they are being used for. Today, viruses sneak into your system and the only alert you may receive is finding your identity or bank information has been compromised.

The best way to protect yourself is to ensure you have high quality antivirus software running on your computer at all times and set it to regularly sweep and quarantine the system. It is also a best practice to refrain from clicking on links from people you don’t know.

Lewis University Online provides an M.S. in Information Security for individuals interested in learning more about cyber security or advancing their career. Visit their program website to learn about how information security can enhance your opportunities and earning potential today.