Happy 40th Birthday, Virus!

Happy Birthday!The computer virus turned forty years young yesterday and I felt that it was necessary to honor it by talking a bit about its history.

What was the first virus?  It debuted in 1971 and was quickly named “The Creeper”.  It wasn’t terribly destructive, at least not by our own standards.  What it did was display “I’m the Creeper!  Catch me if you can!” on the screens of every infected terminal.  Boring, right?

Wrong.  It started the digital battleground we find ourselves in every day.  Every day major companies employ programmers to seal up every conceivable hole in their system while a bunch of 13 year old Norwegian kids (and others, I’m sure) work as hard if not harder to drive truckloads of malicious code through them, sometimes to be annoying, sometimes to steal data but without a doubt just to see if they can do it.  In 1990 there were about 1,300 known viruses.  Today there are over 200 million of the little buggers.

While the early viruses were simply annoying, the new stuff is downright mean (and ingenious).  The first truly commercial virus was Melissa, which hit the world in 1999 and damn near killed us all (digitally speaking, of course).  Nowadays when they aren’t writing code to steal our identities and credit card numbers they are creating botnets, the first of which was called MyTob and debuted in 2005.  A botnet is hundreds of thousands of machines that have been infected by a tiny little file that allows the code writer to control your machine.  When they have enough computers in their botnet, they can launch a DOS (Denial of Service) attack.  They use the botnet to send millions upon billions of pieces of garbage data at a website.  The servers at the website can’t handle all of the unintelligible data and eventually crash.  Even Microsoft was brought to their knees by a DOS attack a few years back.

One of my personal “favorite” viruses is the one that makes you think it’s your own virus scanner and says “Your PC is infected!  Click this to clean it!”  Of course, once you do it embeds itself and is nearly impossible to remove.  Hell, even the websites with removal instructions are usually just ways to get more viruses onto your system.  I’ve come up against this one more times than I care to mention, and not because I clicked it myself.  Users…

Most notably, a computer virus was used to bring down the alien mothership and save the human race in “Independence Day”.

Happy birthday, computer virus!