Sooner or later, most of us will probably get in contact with some kind of malware. Might be viruses, worms, trojan horses, ransomware, rootkits, spyware or other forms of hostile software. Some of them are experimental or aim to simply annoy the users, while others have a destructive harmful function. We all know how dangerous these malwares can be nowadays, but have you ever wondered how did it all begin and where do these bad guys come from?
The link between biology and computers
The amazing thing is that malware existed even before Microsoft did. Moreover, perhaps surprisingly, it has its roots in research. That’s why in the early stages, most malware created was intended to be experimental, not malicious. The theoretical possibility of malware existence was first discussed in 1949. It all started with a correlation between biological viruses that self-replicate and the new “computing machines”.
Early phase – “I’m the Creeper! Catch me if you can!”
Two decades later, computer programmer Bob Thomas conducted an experiment on what he was hoping to be a self-replicating program. The program he had created was called Creeper. Even though it didn’t replicate, Creeper was considered by many the first computer virus. It managed to spread through ARPAnet and determined infected systems to display the line “I’m the Creeper. Catch me if you can!”. Soon after that, in order to track and remove Creeper, Thomas created Reaper. This was, in fact, the first antivirus program ever created.
Other scientists gave credit to Elk Cloner for being the first computer virus, because it was the first one to self-replicate. This was a Mac-compatible virus that appeared in 1982 and led to a computer malware outbreak on a large scale.
The year 1986 revealed the first PC-based malware, called Brain (or Pakistani Brain). The virus was developed by two Pakistani brothers, in order to prove that PCs aren’t secure enough. It spread via infected floppy disks only and it did no real harm.
Another notable malware was Morris’ Worm (1988). This was the first computer worm and it was supposed to be a harmless experiment, but it went wrong because of a bug.
From innocent experiments to criminal cyber attacks
45 years after the creation of Creeper, malware has become a real business, linked to organised criminal activity. But how did that happen? Until 1990, most malware was spreading via floppies and was somehow linked to universities and experiments. But starting with the early 90s, home users and businesses were equally targeted by malware, and by this time the attacks weren’t intended as harmless experiments anymore.
As the decade progressed, malware became more and more harmful and sophisticated, becoming a tool for making money. The number of money scams, compromised websites, hijacked servers and data stolen increased considerably, as well as the damage they did. Malware like Zeus, CryptoLocker, Stuxnet, Mydoom or Conficker caused tremendous harm, not only to computers, but also in real life.