Viruses 101

Anti-Virus Software

Legal Implications

Social Impact
  Social Implications

The Future

The Social Impact of Viruses

[Timeline]  [Sources]

Brief History: A Virus Timeline  [Top]
Although the first computer virus dates back to 1986, viruses did not receive national attention until two years later. On November 2, 1988, Robert T. Morris, Jr. released the infamous "Internet Worm," forever changing the public's perception of computer threats. While the worm did not contain any code to change data or otherwise corrupt the systems it invaded, its self-replication flooded many networks with an overload of traffic. This worm temporarily disabled approximately six thousand computers, including machines at NASA, some major universities, and a number of military bases.[1] The public soon became aware of the potential that such attacks held for mass electronic destruction, and "computer virus" quickly became a household term.

In the years following Morris' worm, the number of virus incidents began to rise dramatically. Newer, more sophisticated viruses entered the scene and began to wreak havoc in previously unforeseen ways. The Dark Avenger virus of 1989 represented a major threat in that it was a "fast-infector," possessing the ability to infect new files while anti-virus software was scanning a computer's hard drive. The Frodo virus of the same year was the first virus to exhibit full stealth capabilities so that it could hide from detection utilities of the time. The turn of the decade marked the appearance of Virus Exchange Bulletin Boards, a forum where virus writers could upload their own creations and download other people's viruses. This added fuel to the growing swell of viruses and enabled non-programmers to obtain malicious code without having to write it themselves. Complex armoring and encryption techniques emerged to thwart the anti-virus effort, generating buzzwords such as "polymorphism" and "multipartite." The number of anti-virus products on the market also began to rise around 1990, demonstrating that corporations were starting to respond to the growing public concern about viruses.

A number of disturbing trends characterized the next few years. In March of 1991, VCS v 1.0 was "released" on the Internet. This stood for Virus Construction Set version 1.0, and the software allowed users to craft their own unique viruses from a simple user interface. Although primitive, VCS paved the way for other more powerful virus creation kits to make their way to the underground Internet scene.[2] A media frenzy erupted in March of 1992 in anticipation of the Michelangelo virus. Anti-virus groups determined that this virus was scheduled to awaken on March 6th, the birthday of the famous artist, and destroy all data on any infected machine.[3] John McAfee, found of the company that produces McAfee Antivirus, predicted that between 50,000 and 5 million computers might be infected.[4] The media jumped on these figures, bringing the public to a near hysteria. In reality, only about 20,000 systems were affected, and each subsequent year the number dropped exponentially. Perhaps Michelangelo's greatest impact was the mass media attention it received, encouraging virus authors to continue their malicious endeavors in the hopes of making the front page of Wired and other computer publications.

Computer threats entered a new phase in 1995 with the introduction of macro viruses. The first such virus was named "Concept," appropriately enough because it represented a brand new way of infecting computers. Rather than target the Microsoft Windows platform or the Mac Operating System, Concept attacked the Microsoft Word platform by exploiting the power of WordBASIC, a special programming language written just for Microsoft Word.[5] This trend of targeting particular applications has continued to the present. Among the primary dangers are Javascript viruses, which can attack users with insecure web browsers, and the popular virus/worm hybrids that attack major email applications. Happy99, Melissa, and LoveLetter are all email-based viruses that have caused widespread damage to corporations and individuals alike. LoveLetter and the recent Anna Kournikova virus are interesting in that they represent a new breed of "psychological" computer viruses, playing on people's weaknesses and desires to launch the replication event. As we look ahead towards the future of computer viruses, we will inevitably see unique types of viruses coupled with artful methods of spreading.

See also:
A Brief History of Computer Viruses (Alan Solomon, 1993) - http://www.bocklabs.wisc.edu/~janda/solomhis.html
History of Computer Viruses (Robert Slade, 1992) - http://www.bocklabs.wisc.edu/~janda/sladehis.html

Sources  [Top]
1. Spafford, Eugene. "The Internet Worm: Crisis and Aftermath," in Communications of the ACM, June 1989.

2. http://www.net-security.sk/doc/e-zine/40hex/40hex-10.001.html

3. CERT Advisory CA-1992-02 Michelangelo PC Virus Warning. http://www.cert.org/advisories/CA-1992-02.html

4. Lemos, Robert. "Michelangelo Virus: Is it overhyped or a real threat?" ZDNet News, March 5, 1998. http://www.zdnet.com/zdnn/content/zdnn/0305/291988.html

5. Virus timeline. http://www.research.ibm.com/antivirus/timeline.htm