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Computer virus turns 25

Many unhappy returns

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The computer virus turns 25 this month. Long-suffering computer users would be forgiven for thinking that the first computer virus appeared in the mid-1980s, but the first virus actually predates the arrival of the first IBM-compatible PC.

Elk Cloner, which spread between Apple II computers via infected floppy disks, has the dubious distinction of the first computer virus1 to spread in the wild. The malware is thought to be the work of Rich Skrenta, a 15-year-old high school student from Pittsburgh, who released it in July 1982.

The payload of Elk Cloner was largely benign, harking back to an earlier more innocent age before today's generation of Trojans that turn compromised PCs into clients on zombie networks controlled for profit-motivated cybercrooks. Elk Cloner's payload was merely a verse or two of poetry. Mostly harmless. Although the malware did set the theme for a stream of annoying pieces of malware which popped up on the screens of Apple II, BBC Micro and, later, early PC users' screens.

"Back then it was just a prank. A bit of fun. Today's malware is frequently malevolent and coded by criminals and/or hackers who are intent on extracting money from - as well as destroying the data of - innocent computer users and the organisations they work for," said Phil Higgins, a senior partner with security integrator Brookcourt Solutions. "An example of this is the MPack tool kit which is being used by criminals to infect legitimate websites and then deliver a crimeware payload to unsuspecting visitors." ®

Bootnote

1 Some historians of computer malware, such as Kaspersky Labs, reckon the Creeper virus, which was detected on ARPANET, ought to be considered the first computer virus. The majority, however, date the first computer virus back to Elk Cloner, the first to affect personal computers.

Science has a detailed perspective on the history of computer viruses here (registration required).

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