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.
Two of the top five sites on the internet are search engines, which makes a lot sense. We depend on them to find everything from the news to toothpaste to a place to eat dinner. According to internetlivestats.com, Google processes over 3.5 billion searches worldwide every day. Its rival Bing is rising to become the second largest search engine, accounting for 33% of all search queries performed. Now here’s the interesting part. Given these billions and billions of queries, can you be sure that all these search results 'harmless'? When you are clicking on a link Google, Bing or Yahoo! gives you, how do you know you are about to visit a site that is safe? You can't That's why you take simple precautions to make sure you don’t unintentionally visit malicious sites. The most convenient way to stay safe while using search engines is by using a free website safety rating service, such as F-Secure Search. F-Secure Search pre-screens the search results returned by a search engine and gives each result a safety rating. Harmful sites that try to violate your privacy or harm your device are clearly marked, so you know which sites are safe and which to avoid, even before you click on a link! Adult content is automatically blocked from search results, so you have peace of mind when your children are using F-Secure Search. Also, all communication between you and F-Secure is encrypted, so there’s no room for snooping. To help you keep both your personal details and your PC protected from malicious sites, simply go to search.f-secure.com and start using it today. You can also use F-Secure Search as the default search engine in your browser. And while we're you're thinking about surfing safely, take a minute to make sure your browsers are up-to-date. With a safe browser and safe results, you'll be surfing safer than ever.
Every time you go online, your personal privacy is at risk – it’s as simple as that. Whether you’re creating an account on a website, shopping, or just browsing, information like your email, IP address and browsing history are potential targets for interested parties. All too often, that information is sold on or sometimes even stolen without you even knowing it. And the threats to our online privacy and security are evolving. Fast. As F-Secure’s Online Protection Service Lead, Christine Bejerasco’s job is to make life online safer and more secure. “We’re basically online defenders. And when your job is to create solutions that help protect people, the criminals and attackers you’re protecting them against always step up their game. So it’s like an arms race. They come up with new ways of attacking users and our job is to outsmart them and defend our users,” Christine says. Sounds pretty dramatic, right? Well that’s because it is. While it used to be that the biggest threat to your online privacy was spam and viruses, the risks of today and tomorrow are potentially way more serious. “Right now we’re in the middle of different waves of ransomware. That’s basically malware that turns people’s files into formats they can’t use. We’ve already seen cases of companies and individual people having their systems and files hijacked for ransom. It’s serious stuff and in many cases very sad. If your online assets aren’t protected right now you should kind of feel like you’re going to bed at night with your front door not only unlocked but wide open.” Christine and her team of 11 online security superheroes (eight full-time members and three super-talented interns) are on the case in Helsinki. Here’s more on Christine and her work in her own words: Where are you from? The Philippines Where do you live and work? I live in Espoo and work at F-Secure in Ruoholahti, Helsinki. Describe your job in 160 characters or less? Online guardian who strives to give F-Secure users a worry-free online experience. One word that best describes your work? Engaging How long is a typical work day for you? There is no typical workday. It ranges from 6 – 13 hours, depending on what’s happening. What sparked your interest in online security? At the start it was just a job. As a computer science graduate, I was just looking for a job where I could do something related to my field. And then when I joined a software security company in the Philippines, I was introduced to this world of online threats and it’s really hard to leave all the excitement behind. So I’ve stayed in the industry ever since. Craziest story you’ve ever heard about online protection breach? Ashley Madison. Some people thought it was just a funny story, but it had pretty serious consequences for some of the people on that list. Does it frustrate you that so many people don’t care about protecting their online privacy? Yeah, it definitely does. But you grow to understand that people don’t value things until they lose it. It’s like insurance. You don’t think about it until something bad happens and then you care. What’s your greatest work achievement? Shaping the online protection service in the Labs from its starting stages to where we are today. What’s your idea of happiness? Road trips and a bottle of really good beer. Which (non-work-related) talent would you most like to have? Hmmm… tough. Maybe, stock-market prediction skills? What are your favorite apps? Things Stumbleupon What blogs do you like? Security blogs (F-Secure Security blog of course and others – too many to list.) Self-Help Blogs (Zen Habits, Marc and Angel, etc.) Who do you admire most? I admire quite a few people for different reasons. Warren Buffett for his intensity, simplicity and generosity. Mikko Hyppönen for his idealism and undying dedication to the online security fight. And Mother Theresa for embodying the true meaning of how being alive is like being in school for your soul. Do you ever, ever go online without protection? Not with systems associated to me personally, or with someone else. But of course, when we are analyzing online threats, then yes. See how to take control of your online privacy – watch the film and hear more from Christine. See how Freedome VPN will keep you protected and get it now.