Ever wondered who created the world’s first computer virus? Well if you were to search for ‘the first computer virus’ in Google you will be presented with Brain (The Brain Boot Sector Virus) designed to infect floppy disks. Back in 1986, brothers Amjad and Basit Farooq Alvi became increasingly fedup of people simply making illegal copies of the software they spent so long in producing, in so doing they created the world’s first stealth virus which cleverly replaced the boot sector of a floppy disk with a blocking virus, it didn’t harm the individuals computer or corrupt any data, but it did stop any copies being made and presented the person attempting to make copies with a copyright message. But either way, Brain was not the first computer virus by a long shot.

The first known and recognised computer virus was not a fully functioning virus at all but a written theory of self-replicating computer programs. Written by John von Neumann in 1949 the “Theory of self-reproducing automata” discusses how computer programs could be designed to replicate themselves in very much the same way viruses replicate themselves in creatures, however the term Virus was not actually coined to describe self-reproducing programs, the first known use of the term virus for computers came from a fictional novel from the author Gregory Benford, ‘The Scarred Man’ published in 1970. The story describes a computer program known as VIRUS which when installed on the host computer used its dialup modem to call random phone numbers, one of its calls was answered by another computer which it then tries to program with the VIRUS so that the newly infected computer would start to make random phone calls too, in search for more computers to infect. Eventually the program spreads far and wide infecting all susceptible devices, the only thing that stops VIRUS in its tracks is another program called VACCINE.

But it wasn’t actually until Fred Cohen released his thesis “Computer Viruses – Theory and Experiments” in 1984 that anyone or any professional paper had explicitly called self-reproducing programs, Virus or Viruses.

Now though there had been many theories produced during the 1940s to the 1970s it wasn’t until 1971 that what is regarded as the first virus was created and being tested. Bob Thomas the creator of virus “Creeper” had actually been testing a security design program to see if self-replicating programs were possible when he made the discovery, though not able to fully replicate itself perfectly as such Creeper was able to infect other computers and attempted to remove itself from previous hosts, not always as successfully as it did in infecting it.

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By 1974 the very first virus from an unknown actor was produced, the Wabbit (Rabbit) Virus, though understandably fairly uncommon worked like a fork bomb, basically a denial of service  (DOS) attack, where the virus continually replicates itself, draining the system of all its compute resources, starving the system and causing it to crash. The following year brought with it the first trojan well at least the first program that demonstrated how a trojan would work. Popular computer games in the mid 1970s were animal programs where the computer would guess from a set of questions which animal you were thinking of, the most popular of these games ANIMAL which was originally transmitted via magnetic tapes was produced by John Walker in 1975. John looked at an easier means of transmitting the data and created a program called PERVADE which installed itself along with ANIMAL. During game play PERVADE examined all available computer directories looking for places that didn’t already have ANIMAL files installed and made copies, so just like a Trojan where a malicious program hides inside another ordinary program to carry out its actions, PERVADE hid inside ANIMAL to carry out its non-malicious actions without the users knowledge or approval.

And finally for now at least as this will likely be one that many of you will remember, “ILOVEYOU” or the “Love Bug” as it was fondly? No that’s not the right word! Otherwise known. Just on the cusp of the 21st century on 4th May 2000 a computer worm was unleashed to the world in the form of an email message with the subject line “ILOVEYOU”, along with the email came an attached file that contained a hidden worm, titled “LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.txt.vbs”. The malware which was created by 24 year old Onel de Guzman from the Philippines was quite possibly the most ingenious and advanced virus of its type, the worm would not only overwrite existing files and replace them with copies of itself, it then used all the victims email contacts to send the the email too, and from that person’s email address ensuring that all victims would open the email and attachment thought to be from their friend, family, colleague or client. 

The following day 5th May 2000 Microsoft reported that in excess of 10 million Windows computers had already been infected. Luckily for Onel there were no laws in the Philippines at the time against creating malware, however his actions did lead the Philippine Congress to create and write the E-Commerce Republic Act No. 8792 into law by July that same year.

What once started out as a computer program theory, Sci-Fi novel, a test, development or mistake some 60 years ago lead to the discovery, creation and birth of the many different viruses that we are presented with today, and though many of these viruses have certainly evolved there foundations can be found deep rooted in the past.

Photo by Olia Nayda on Unsplash