Modern day computer virus origins may surprise you- their goals were not quite the same as they are today.
Early on, viruses had varied utilities and were engineered mostly by people in computer science industries. College students created viruses for research projects in order to help further their studies and fine-tune their coding skills. In addition to research, those students would also construct code to play practical jokes on their classmates. Engineers at Xerox created a computer worm meant to search for idle processes in a computer network. A pair of programmers created a boot sector virus in order to defend their program against piracy, more of which you will read about below.
Prior to 1988, most viruses were mere annoyances and virtually harmless. In January of 1986, the first virus written for Windows based PCs was born. Known simply as “Brain,” it was written by two brothers, Basit and Amjad Farooq Alvi, who were only 17 and 24 years old at the time. The brothers had created a heart-monitoring program, and it had come to their attention that pirates were distributing the software without the brothers’ permission. Brain was developed as a way to try to regulate and protect the software they created.
If illegally copied versions of the software were installed on a computer, the virus would also copy itself onto the machine. The user of the pirated software received an imbedded message stating that his or her computer was infected with a virus and that the user would need to contact the brothers immediately for “inoculation.”
Once the outbreak reached its peak, the brothers became inundated with phone calls from all over the world, demanding that machines be “disinfected”.
There was never any legal action taken against the brothers; however, the media went crazy. Today, the brothers own BrainNet, which is Pakistan’s largest ISP.
Consequentially, Brain motivated the technicians at IBM to create the first antivirus software for the general consumer in 1987.
In order to fully understand the evolution of viruses, it’s important to look at the people who create them and the motivation that drives them.
Hobbyists tend to be experienced programmers who produce code to push the limits to see what can be achieved, but who don’t make it a full-time activity. They find coding intellectually challenging and often enjoy a good competition with fellow hobbyists.
Script Kiddies are individuals who will often hijack scripts and code created by other coders. They modify and use these scripts to attack and infect as many machines as possible. While not very experienced, they’re just looking to cause mischief, vandalism and chaos.
Cybercriminals are in it for the money. They use spyware, ransomware, Trojans- any means necessary to try to gain financial information from the target.
Where Script Kiddies try to make noise in order to gain attention, cybercriminals prefer stealth, so their programs can run undetected for as long as possible.
The Spread Of Modern Day Malware
Modern day descendants of early viruses are rampant everywhere. In May of 2000, the Loveletter viruswas a computer worm that attacked tens of millions of Windows computers within hours of its release. Spread via e-mail, the message delivered an attachment that contained the malicious code. Once opened, the worm would overwrite image files and email itself to all of the contacts in the users’ address book. After the inception of Loveletter, there was an influx of mass-mailing worms—mostly noisy threats--the authors merely wanted their presence known.
These mass-mailing worms opened up a new door to Botnets and the emergence of cybercriminals. Botnets are computers infected by malware that allow the hacker to gain control and use them for financial gain. Their main purpose is to send out spam, malware and spyware. In addition to causing chaos, they also attempt to gain access to personal information such as credit card numbers, bank information and Social Security numbers. The most famous worm to come from the Botnet movement was Conficker (AKA Downadup), launched in 2008, targeting the Windows OS. Infecting millions of computers - from home users to government agencies - spanning across over 200 countries, Conficker is the largest worm to date and is still one of the largest threats we see today.
Cybercriminals have continued to develop ways to exploit computers and devices for financial gain. Rogue Security Software has paved the way for more recent threatening malware. FakeAV was one of the first types of Rogueware to emerge. Rogueware tricks a user into believing that they have a virus, usually in the form of a pop up on a website. The Rogueware then tries to lure the user with a download link to a fake antivirus removal tool. Sometimes charging a fee, sometimes not, the result is the same- downloading the suggested software only installs malware onto the computer. The people behind the Rogueware moved on to more disruptive threats such as Ransomware and most recently Cryptolocker.
In 2013, the CryptoLocker family of Ransomware emerged. Mostly disguised as an email attachment and, the program encrypts targeted files, in turn blocking users from accessing them. The malware displays a message demanding payment via BitCoin or MoneyPak in exchange for the encryption key. If payment was not received by the established deadline, the key would be deleted, leaving the target without access to their data forever.
Keep Yourself Protected
Contrary to popular belief, traditional antivirus software alone will not fully protect you from threats. Instead, look into full Internet security software suites such as Norton Internet Security. Not only will it scan your system for viruses, but it will also scan your inbox for potential threats, comes with firewall protection, anti-phishing technology and much more.
Even with a full Internet security software suite, there are still more precautions that can be taken. Users should still be wary about any unfamiliar attachments or links via email, as well as social media.
Always run system updates, which usually repair security flaws and can protect the computer against a variety of online threats. Not only should you run the updates for your operating system, you should also update programs such as Java and Flash, as lots of hackers tend to prey on computers with outdated versions of these programs.