Computer viruses are frustrating, inconvenient and can be downright dangerous to your internet security and privacy. We all know the symptoms — your system dramatically slows down, your computer randomly crashes in the middle of an important document, and pop ups and spam suddenly flood your screen.
No one wants to deal with a computer virus however they cause billions of dollars worth of damage every year.
But have you ever wondered where computer viruses come from? Who spreads these vicious forms of malware? And whilst no computer virus is good news, which have been the most destructive throughout history?
Keep reading to discover a little more about the history of the computer virus and what steps you can take to protect yourself against similar cyber threats.
The early days of the computer virus
The concept of a computer virus was first raised in the late 1940s by Hungarian-American mathematician John von Neumann — despite the computer not yet having been invented. In 1966, von Neumann put his thoughts down on paper and published an essay entitled ‘Theory of Self-Replicating Automata’ which theorised self-replicating, automatic entities that behaved in a very similar way to modern computer viruses.
In fact, the first computer virus was created shortly there afterwards. The ‘Creeper’ program was developed by Bob Thomas whilst working at tech development company BBN.
Thomas wished to investigate the self-replicating capabilities of computer technology, particularly over ARPANET which was an early form of the internet. Creeper didn’t do any real harm, but computer scientists who connected the ARPANET one day in 1971 were greeted with the mysterious message ‘I’m the creeper, catch me if you can!’
Creeper spawned thousands of copycat viruses, the worst of which resulted in widespread panic, network shutdowns and costly repercussions.
In 1999 a man named David L. Smith created the computer virus known as Melissa. He based the virus on a Microsoft Word template and built it so that it could be spread via email.
The recipient received an email with an attachment. Once it had been opened (by curious and unknowing internet users) it replicated itself and forwarded the email onto the user’s top 50 Outlook contacts.
One of the earliest mass computer viruses, Melissa caused widespread panic and resulted in Microsoft having to shut down all incoming email traffic.
Originating in the Philippines, the ILOVEYOU virus spread in the early 2000s, shortly after Melissa. Classified as a computer worm, it infected an estimated ten million Windows computers and was also spread via email.
The subject of the email said that the recipient had a secret admirer, and that the attachment would reveal who it is. Unfortunately once clicked upon, the attached file wreaked havoc to personal computers — copying itself and hiding in the user’s hard drive, adding unwanted files and stealing passwords.
ILOVEYOU cost an estimated $10 billion in damages and resulted in The Pentagon, CIA and British Parliament having to shut down their systems. There was no legislation against creating malware in the Philippines at that time so despite several suspects being caught and arrested, no one was ever charged.
The Anna Kournikova virus was disruptive but did not cause much actual damage. In fact, the creator of the virus — 20 year old student Jan de Wit — was actually offered a programming job by his town’s mayor after de Wit realised the extent of his malware and turned himself into local police.
Anna Kournikova was another virus spread via email. The recipient received an email with an attachment that was said to be a photo of famous tennis player Anna Kournikova. Instead, opening the file unleashed a computer virus that was forwarded onto every email address in the recipient’s Outlook. Beyond this, it thankfully did little damage to a computer’s hard drive.
Discovered in 2010, Stuxnet is a computer virus that did cause real-world damage. Stuxnet was a malware that targeted computers controlling industrial machinery and caused intense damage to Iran’s nuclear program.
Stuxnet did not simply act to hijack computers or steal information from them but rather perpetrated havoc on devices controlled by computers — specifically the centrifuges used in Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. It was introduced to these computers through infected USB devices.
Neither country has admitted to creating the virus but it is largely accepted that Stuxnet was designed jointly by the US and Israeli governments in an effort to prevent the development of nuclear weapons.
Protecting yourself online
Many of the viruses mentioned above no longer exist, however that’s not to say that the internet is a safe and secure place. New forms of malware are introduced to the online world every day, which is why it is important to take steps to protect yourself.
It is highly recommended by internet security experts that you make use of reputable antivirus software, which should protect you from most known threats. Whilst cybercriminals are constantly evolving, so too are cyber security teams and it pays to invest in the most up-to-date protection software.
Other steps that you can take include never opening emails from unknown senders, clicking on suspicious links or downloading apps that you have not researched beforehand.
The internet is a wonderful place; just make sure to practise good internet security habits and stay safe!
Bridget is a writer and editor, currently living in Melbourne. She is a copywriter for Newpath Web and loves working with words of all shapes and sizes. When not playing around with punctuation and grammar, she enjoys traveling and curating her Spotify playlists.