From the first amateur hackers in the 80s till 2011 when international cyber sabotage is a reality, viruses have illustrated the frightening potential of human ingenuity. Here’s a brief look back how computer viruses have evolved through the most important outbreaks of the last 25 years.
The first PC virus
1. Brain, 1986
More than a decade before anyone had ever heard of Napster, the first PC virus was designed to fight piracy. The author who came up with the word “cyber,” William Gibson called Brain “basically a wheel-clamp for PCs.”
Basit and Amjad Alvi created and marketed medical software in Lahore, Pakistan. They were interested in two things. First, they wanted to check the multi-tasking functionality in the new DOS operating system (so-called “TSR” systems). Secondly, they wanted to see if there are security vulnerabilities in DOS compared to other operating systems such as Unix.
When they realized that DOS was quite vulnerable, they had the idea to write a snippet of software that would monitor how the software and the floppy disks move around. Brain spread virally via 3 1/4-inch disks, and within weeks, the Alvi’s had to change their phone numbers.
25 years after the creation of first PC virus, in early 2011, F-Secure’s Mikko Hypponen went to Lahore, Pakistan to visit the address in the code. He found the Alvi brothers still there, running a successful business. The following video includes the first video interview Amjad and Farooq have given about Brain ever.
Some early fun
Most of the early viruses were variations of the same theme: “Gotcha!” Users knew they’d been infected because that was exactly the point. Like a digital pie in the face.
2. Stoned, 1987
Created by a high school student in New Zealand, Stoned was supposed to be harmless. It simply displayed the message “Your PC is now Stoned!” on your screen. However, as the first virus that infected a PC’s boot sector, Stoned established that viruses could control a computer’s function from the moment it turned on. Bob Dylan should be proud.
3. Form, 1990
Form became one of the most widespread viruses ever. On the 18th of each month, it produced a clicking sound from the PC’s speaker whenever a key was pressed. Annoying, but harmless.
Other variations on this early innocent sort of “gotcha” virus included V-Sign, which displayed a V on your screen. The Walker virus showed an elderly man walking across your screen. Elvira scrolled text in the “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” style a la Star Wars. And then there was Joshi. Every year, on the Joshi’s birthday, this eponymous virus displayed a birthday message. The machine refused to boot up until the user typed “Happy Birthday Joshi.”
4. Michelangelo, 1992
Michelangelo would override everything on a hard drive on specified dates. A variation of Stoned with much crueler intentions, Michelangelo was probably the first computer virus that made international news.
5. VCL, 1992
Virus Creation Laboratory made it easy to whip up a malicious little program by automating virus creation using a simple graphical interface.
Early MS-DOS and PC-DOS viruses did some damage to PCs, usually intentionally, but virus writers soon began to actively seek to wreak havoc by actively disabling computers.
6. Happy99, 1999
Happy99 was the first email virus. It greeted you with “Happy New Year 1999” and emailed itself to all contacts in your address book. Like the very first PC viruses, Happy99 did not cause any real damage, though it did spread to millions of PCs around the world.
7. Monkey, 1993
A distant relative of Stoned, Monkey secretly integrated itself into data files and spread seamlessly. It was the early ancestor of a rootkit, a self-concealing program, and it prevented booting from a floppy disk. When it was removed improperly, Monkey prevented any sort of booting at all.
Upgrading to Windows
In the early 90s, viruses became macro viruses and took on Microsoft’s new OS, Windows. Written in the same languages as applications like Microsoft Word, macro viruses appeared in late 1995. In just three months, they became the most common virus type in the world.
8. Concept, 1995
The first virus that infected Microsoft Word files, Concept became one of the most common viruses in the world because it could infect any OS that could run Word. Share the file, share the virus.
9. Melissa, 1999
Allegedly named after a female exotic dancer familiar to the virus writer, Melissa combined a virus and an email virus. It infected a Word file then emailed itself to all contacts in the user’s address book and became the first virus to span the globe in only hours. Melissa combined the jokey motivations of the early virus writers with the destructiveness of the era. This virus inserted comments from “The Simpsons” into users’ documents. Not so bad. But Melissa could also send out confidential information without the users’ notice. D’oh!
Not long after Melissa, Microsoft virtually eliminated macro viruses by changing how its Visual Basic macro language works within Office applications.
Crashing the network
Before firewalls, computer worms generated huge amounts of network traffic, disrupting systems by pure volume. These worms generally did not affect individual users but they could rock the infrastructure of both private businesses and governments.
10. Code Red, 2001
The first worm that spread without requiring any user interaction at all and thus spread around the world in minutes, Code Red hid from detection and carried out various functions on a cycle. On Days 1-19, it spread itself. From the 20th to the 27th, it launched Denial of Service attacks on various addresses including the White House. And from the 28th day till the end of the month, it rested.
10. Loveletter, 2000
The computer worm that broke millions of hearts, Loveletter is still one of the biggest outbreaks of all time. It spread via email attachment and overwrote many of the crucial files on the PCs it infected. This outbreak was an incredible successful attempt at social engineering. Using the promise of love, it convinced millions to open the attachment, causing an estimated $5.5 billion in damage worldwide. Guess there are a lot of people out there looking for a little love.
12. Slammer, 2003
Network worms require just a few lines of code and vulnerability to spark real world trouble. Slammer took down Bank of America’s ATM network and 911 services in Seattle. Even the air traffic control system was not immune.
13. Sobig, 2003
Sobig was a quick improvement on Fizzer (see below). Some versions waited for a couple of days after infecting a machine before turning affected machines into e-mail proxy servers. The result? Massive spam. AOL alone reported stopping more than 20 million infected messages on one day.
14. Mydoom, 2004
Mydoom spread over email and the Kazaa Peer-to-Peer (P2P) network. It set new records but was old school in the sense that the motive wasn’t monetary. Mydoom executed Distributed Denial-of-Service attack on one particular website and opened a backdoor on infected computers, which left the machine open to remote access.
15. Sasser, 2004
Sasser came in through a vulnerable network ports and slowed or crashed networks from Australia to Hong Kong to the UK.
Money. Money. Money.
In the last decade, the motive for virus writing has become obvious: Money. The technology still tends to be variations on a theme, but modern virus writers utilize advanced user psychology and social engineering to draw users into traps that they’d probably been warned about several times.
16. Fizzer, 2003
Fizzer was the first virus designed to make money. It arrived as an infected attachment. Once opened, it took over infected computers and forced them to send spam.
As the real-world impact of viruses was felt in the early 90s, business, government, software makers and the Internet security industry put fires out and collaborated to minimize threats. Virus writers, too, evolved to avoid detection, creating advanced malware that could even be programmed to be patient.
17. Cabir, 2003
The first mobile phone virus in history, Cabir targeted Nokia smartphones running the Symbian operating system. It was spread via Bluetooth and proved that whatever shape PCs evolve into, they will be targeted.
18. SDBot, 2003
SDBot was a Trojan horse that bypassed normal security to secretly control a computer. It created a backdoor that allowed the user to do several things including sniff for passwords and the reg codes of games like Half-Life and Need for Speed 2.
19. Haxdoor, 2005
Haxdoor was another Trojan horse that sniffed for passwords and other private data. Later variants had rootkit capabilities. Even Brain used techniques to cloak itself, but Haxdoor employed far more sophisticated methods. A modern rootkit can turn a computer into a zombie computer that can be controlled without the user’s knowledge, sometimes for years.
20. Sony BMI, 2005
In 2005, one of the biggest record companies in the world had the same idea that the Alvi brothers had in 1986: Use a virus to prevent piracy. On its audio CDs, it included a music player program and a rootkit that controlled how the owner could access the audio tracks. The result was a media firestorm and a class-action lawsuit that ended with Sony offering users money and free downloads.
Computer viruses have had real world effects for decades, but in 2010 a computer virus may have changed the course of history.
In November of 2010, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad confirmed that a cyber attack had indeed caused problems with their nuclear centrifuges. And in January of 2011, Russia’s ambassador to NATO said that Stuxnet could cause a “new Chernobyl.”
21. Stuxnet, 2010
An unusually large Windows worm—about a 1000% larger than the typical computer worm, Stuxnet most likely spread through USB device. It infects a system, hides itself with a rootkit and sees if the infected computer is connected to a Siemens Simatic factory system. If the worm finds a connection, it then changes the commands sent from the Windows computer to the PLC Programmable Logic Controllers, i.e., the boxes that actually control the machinery. Once running on the PLC, it looks for a specific factory environment. If this is not found, it does nothing.
F-Secure Labs estimates that it would take more than 10 man-years of work to complete Stuxnet. This complexity and the fact that it could be used to impair the ability of a centrifuge to enrich uranium while providing no monetary gain suggest that Stuxnet was probably developed by a government—though which government is unclear.
22. Storm Worm, 2007
Machiavelli said it’s better to be feared than loved. Seven years after Loveletter, Storm Worm capitalized on our collective fear of bad weather and first spread generally via an email message with the subject line “230 dead as storm batters Europe.” Once the attachment was open, a Trojan backdoor and a rootkit forced the PC to join a botnet. Botnets are armies of zombie computers that can be used to, among other thing, send out tons of spam. And this one sucked in ten million computers.
23. Mebroot, 2008
Mebroot was a rootkit built to hide from the rootkit detectors that quickly became part of many Internet security suites. It is so advanced that if it crashes a PC, Mebroot will send a diagnostic report to the virus writer.
24. Conficker, 2008
Conficker quickly took millions of computers all over the globe. It exploits both flaws along with Windows and weak passwords along with several advanced techniques. Once a system is infected, further malware can be installed and the user is even prevented from visiting the website of most Internet security vendors. More than two years after it was first spotted, more computers are infected by the worm every day. F-Secure’s Chief Research Office Mikko Hypponen has said that in many ways Conficker is still “a great mystery.”
25. 3D Anti Terrorist
This trojanized “game” targets Windows Mobile phones and was spread via freeware sites. Once installed, it starts making calls to expensive numbers leaving you with large charges. This strategy of hijacking a mobile app or cloaking a malicious app is still new, but it’s likely to one of the main ways the virus writers will attack mobile devices.
Where are we 25 years after Brain?
In 2011, a PC running an updated version of Windows 7 is quite secure, especially when running updated security software. Now that we know more about viruses, we know how to fight them, and ideally prevent them. So, hopefully, in 25 years viruses will have gone the way of macro viruses and we won’t have to make a new list.
Ordinary people here in Finland have been confronted with yet another cybersecurity acronym lately, DoS. And this does not mean that retro-minded people are converting back to the pre-Windows operating system MS-DOS that we used in the eighties. Today DoS stands for Denial of Service. This case started on New Year’s Eve when customers of the OP-Pohjola bank experienced problems withdrawing cash from ATMs and accessing the on-line bank. The problems have now continued with varying severity for almost a week. What happens behind the scene is that someone is controlling a large number of computers. All these computers are instructed to bombard the target system with network traffic. This creates an overload situation that prevents ordinary customers from accessing the system. It’s like a massive cyber traffic jam. The involved computers are probably ordinary home computes infected with malware. Modern malware is versatile and can be used for varying purposes, like stealing your credit card number or participating in DoS-attacks like this. But what does this mean for me, the ordinary computer user? First, you are not at risk even if a system you use is the victim of a DoS-attack. The attack cannot harm your computer even if you try to access the system during the attack. Your data in the target system is usually safe too. The attack prevents people from accessing the system but the attackers don’t get access to data in the system. So inability to use the system is really the only harm for you. Well, that’s almost true. What if your computer is infected and participates in the attack? That would use your computer resources and slow down your Internet connection, not to speak about all the other dangers of having malware on your system. Keeping the device clean is a combination of common sense when surfing and opening attachments, and having a decent protection program installed. So you can participate in fighting DoS-attacks by caring for your own cyber security. But why? Who’s behind attacks like this and what’s the motive? Kids having fun and criminals extorting companies for money are probably the most common motives right now. Sometimes DoS-victims also accuse their competitors for the attack. But cases like this does always raise interesting questions about how vulnerable our cyber society is. There has been a lot of talk about cyber war. Cyber espionage is already reality, but cyber war is still sci-fi. This kind of DoS-attack does however give us a glimpse of what future cyber war might look like. We haven’t really seen any nations trying to knock out another county’s networks. But when it happens, it will probably look like this in greater scale. Computer-based services will be unavailable and even radio, TV, electricity and other critical services could be affected. So a short attack on a single bank is more like an annoyance for the customers. But a prolonged attack would already create sever problems, both for the target company and its customers. Not to talk about nation-wide attacks. Cyber war might be sci-fi today, but it is a future threat that need to be taken seriously. Safe surfing, Micke Image by Andreas Kaltenbrunner.
“Sorry for the inconvenience, I'm in Limassol, Cyprus. I am here for a week and I just lost my bag containing all my important items, phone and money at the bus station. I need some help from you. Thanks” Many of you have seen these messages and some of you already know what the name of the game is. Yes, it’s another type of Internet scam, an imposter scam variant. I got this message last week from a photo club acquaintance. Or to be precise, the message was in bad Swedish from Google translate. Here’s what happened. First I got the mail. Needless to say, I never suspected that he was in trouble in Limassol. Instead I called him to check if he was aware of the scam. He was, I wasn’t the first to react. Several others had contacted him before me and some were posting warnings to his friends on Facebook. These scams start by someone breaking in to the victim’s web mail, which was Gmail in this case. This can happen because of a bad password, a phishing attack, malware in the computer or a breach in some other system. Then the scammer checks the settings and correspondence to find out what language the victim is using. The next step is to send a message like the above to all the victim’s contacts. The victim had reacted correctly and changed the Gmail password ASAP. But I wanted to verify and replied to the scam mail anyway, asking what I can do to help. One hour later I got this: “Thanks, I need to borrow about 1000 euros, will pay you back as soon as I get home. Western Union Money Transfer is the fastest option to wire funds to me. All you need to do is find the nearest Western Union shop and the money will be sent in minutes. See details needed WU transfer below. Name: (Redacted) Address: Limassol, Cyprus you must email me the reference number provided on the payment slip as soon as you make the transfer so I can receive money here. Thank you,” Now it should be obvious for everyone how this kind of scam works. Once the scammers get the reference number they just go to Western Union to cash in. Most recipients will not fall for this, but the scammers will get a nice profit if even one or two contacts send money. But wait. To pull this off, the scammers need to retain control over the mail account. They need to send the second mail and receive the reference number. How can this work if the victim had changed his password? This works by utilizing human’s inability to notice tiny details. The scammers will register a new mail account with an address that is almost identical to the victim’s. The first mail comes from the victim’s account, but directs replies to the new account. So the conversation can continue with the new account that people believe belongs to the victim. The new address may have a misspelled name or use a different separator between the first and last names. Or be in a different domain that is almost the same as the real one. The two addresses are totally different for computers, but a human need to pay close attention to notice the difference. How many of you would notice if a mail address changes from say Bill.Gates@gmail.com to BiII_Gates@mail.com? (How many differences do you notice, right answer at the end?) To be honest, I was sloppy too in this case and didn’t at first see the tiny difference. In theory it is also possible that webmail servers may leave active sessions open and let the scammers keep using the hacked account for a while after the password has been changed. I just tested this on Gmail. They close old sessions automatically pretty quickly, but it is anyway a good idea to use the security settings and manually terminate any connection the scammers may have open. I exchanged a couple of mails with this person the day after. He told that the scammers had changed the webmail user interface to Arabic, which probably is a hint about where they are from. I was just about to press send when I remembered to check the mail address. Bummer, the scammer’s address was still there so my reply would not have reached him unless I had typed the address manually. The account’s reply-to was still set to the scammer’s fake account. OK, let’s collect a checklist that helps identifying these scams. If someone asks for urgent help by mail, assume it’s a scam. These scams are a far more common than real requests for help. We are of course all ready to help friends, but are YOU really the one that the victim would contact in this situation? Are you close enough? How likely is it that you are close enough, but still had no clue he was travelling in Cyprus? Creating urgency is a very basic tool for scammers. Something must be done NOW so that people haven't got time to think or talk to others. The scammers may or may not be able to write correct English, but other languages are most likely hilarious Google-translations. Bad grammar is a strong warning sign. Requesting money using Western Union is another red flag. Wire transfer of money provides pretty much zero security for the sender, and scammers like that. Many scammers in this category try to fake an embarrassing situation and ask the recipient to not tell anyone else, to reduce the risk that someone else sees through it. These messages often state that the phone is lost to prevent the recipient from calling to check. But that is exactly what you should do anyway. Next checklist, how to deal with a situation where your account has been hijacked and used for scams. Act promptly. Change the mail account’s passwords. Check the webmail settings and especially the reply-to address. Correct any changed settings. Check for a function in the web mail that terminates open sessions from other devices. Gmail has a “Secure your account” -wizard under the account’s security settings. It’s a good idea to go through it. Inform your friends. A fast Facebook update may reach them before they see the scammer’s mail and prevent someone from falling for it. It also helps raising awareness. And finally, how to not be a victim in the first place. This is really about account security basics. Make sure you use a decent password. It’s easier to maintain good password habits with a password manager. Activate two-factor authentication on your important accounts. I think anyone’s main mail account is important enough for it. Learn to recognize phishing scams as they are a very common way to break into accounts. Maintain proper malware protection on all your devices. Spyware is a common way to steal account passwords. The last checklist is primarily about protecting your account. But that’s not the full picture. Imagine one of your friends falls for the scam and loses 1000 € when your account is hacked. It is kind of nice that someone cares that much about you, but losing money for it is not nice. Yes, the criminal scammer is naturally the primarily responsible. And yes, people who fall for the scam can to some extent blame themselves. But the one with the hacked account carries a piece of responsibility too. He or she could have avoided the whole incident with the tools described above. Caring about your account security is caring about your friends too! And last but not least. Knowledge is as usual the strongest weapon against scams. They work only as long as there are people who don’t recognize the scam pattern. Help fighting scam by spreading the word! Safe surfing, Micke PS. The two mail addresses above have 3 significant differences. 1. The name separator has changed from a dot to an underscore. 2. The domain name is mail.com instead of gmail.com. 3. The two lower case Ls in Bill has been replaced with capital I. Each of these changes is enough to make it a totally separate mail address. Image by Yumi Kimura
Many techie terms in the headlines lately. Supercookies, supertrackers, HTTP headers and X-UIDH. If you just skim the news you will learn that this is some kind of new threat against our privacy. But what is it really? Let’s dig a bit deeper. We will discover that this is an issue of surprisingly big importance. Cookies are already familiar to most of us. These are small pieces of information that a web server can ask our browser to store. They are very useful for identifying users and managing sessions. They are designed with security and privacy in mind, and users can control how these cookies are used. In short, they are essential, they can be a privacy problem but we have tools to manage that threat. What’s said above is good for us ordinary folks, but not so good for advertisers. Users get more and more privacy-aware and execute their ability to opt out from too excessive tracking. The mobile device revolution has also changed the game. More and more of our Internet access is done through apps instead of the browser. This is like using a separate “browser” for all the services we use, and this makes it a lot harder to get an overall picture of our surfing habits. And that’s exactly what advertisers want, advertising is like a lottery with bad odds unless they know who’s watching the ad. A new generation of supercookies (* were developed to fight this trend. It is a piece of information that is inserted in your web traffic by your broadband provider. Its purpose is to identify the user from whom the traffic comes. And to generate revenue for the broadband provider by selling information about who you really are to the advertisers. These supercookies are typically used on mobile broadband connections where the subscription is personal, meaning that all traffic on it comes from a single person. So why are supercookies bad? They are inserted in the traffic without your consent and you have no way to opt out. They are not visible at all on your device so there is no way to control them by using browser settings or special tools. They are designed to support advertisers and generate revenue for the mobile broadband provider. Your need for privacy has not been a design goal. They are not domain-specific like ordinary cookies. They are broadcasted to any site you communicate with. They were designed to remain secret. They are hidden in an obscure part of the header information that very few web administrators need to touch. There are two ways to pay for Internet services, with money or by letting someone profile you for marketing purposes. This system combines both. You are utilized for marketing profit by someone you pay money to. But what can and should I do as an ordinary user? Despite the name, this kind of supercookies are technically totally different from ordinary cookies. The privacy challenges related with ordinary cookies are still there and need to be managed. Supercookies have not replaced them. Whatever you do to manage ordinary cookies, keep doing it. Supercookies are only used by some mobile broadband providers. Verizon and AT&T have been most in the headlines, but at least AT&T seems to be ramping down as a result of the bad press. Some other operators are affected as well. If you use a device with a mobile broadband connection, you can test if your provider inserts them. Go to this page while connected over the device’s own data connection, not WiFi. Check what comes after “Broadcast UID:”. This field should be empty. If not, then your broadband provider uses supercookies. Changing provider is one way to get rid of them. Another way is to use a VPN-service. This will encapsulate all your traffic in an encrypted connection, which is impossible to tamper with. We happen to have a great offering for you, F-secure Freedome. Needless to say, using Freedome on your mobile device is a good idea even if you are not affected by these supercookies. Check the site for more details. Last but not least. Even if you’re unaffected, as most of you probably are, this is a great reminder of how important net neutrality is. It means that any carrier that deliver your network traffic should do that only, and not manipulate it for their own profit. This kind of tampering is one evil trick, throttling to extort money from other businesses is another. We take neutrality and equal handling for granted on many other common resources in our society. The road network, the postal service, delivery of electricity, etc. Internet is already a backbone in society and will grow even more important in the future. Maintaining neutrality and fair rules in this network is of paramount importance for our future society. Safe surfing, Micke PS. The bad press has already made AT&T drop the supercookies, which is great. All others involved mobile broadband providers may have done the same by the time you are reading this. But this is still an excellent example of why net neutrality is important and need to be guaranteed by legislation. (* This article uses the simplified term supercookie for the X-UIDH -based tracker values used by Verizon, AT&T and others in November 2014. Supercookie may in other contexts refer to other types of cookie-like objects. The common factor is that a supercookie is more persistent and harder to get rid of than an ordinary cookie. Image by Jer Thorp