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Six malware milestones: From Brain to Anna Kournikova

A portmanteau of malicious and software, ‘malware’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “malicious software, such as a virus, which is specifically designed to disrupt or damage a computer system”.

In today’s society malware is a given. However, this wasn’t always the case. In the not-so-distant past, the release of a new computer virus was something which was reported on much like today’s latest Apple innovations.

With this year being recognised as the 25th anniversary of malware, it makes sense to look at a history of the most iconic, destructive and memorable malware.

Created in January of 1986, Brain is generally regarded as the first virus. However this recognition is very much debated as Brain’s claim to the title is based merely on being the first vastly-spread virus—infecting PCs—along with the fact that it was the first ever stealth virus, a virus which hides itself from attempts to remove it.

Passed along through infected 5.25 inch floppy disks, Brain did no intentional damage though it may have, over time, made some disks unusable. Interestingly, when accessed with a binary editor, Brain shows the names, phone numbers and addresses of its creators, Basit and Amjad Farooq Alvi of Lahore, Pakistan, who created the virus to infect computers running pirated copies of a program they had created.

Elk Cloner
Another contender to the title of “first” is 1982’s Elk Cloner virus which infected Apple II computers. The reason why this virus is not as widely identified as Brain is that it initially infected only the computers of a math teacher and a few friends of the virus’ creator, 15-year old Richard Skrenta. However, the virus truly started spreading when Skrenta started giving away pirated copies of programs with the virus on them. The virus did no harm to the computers and was just an irritant posting the following “poem” every 50 times the computer was booted.

Jerusalem is one of the first examples of a truly malicious virus; a type of virus which, despite the general opinion of viruses, is actually rare. Infecting DOS computers, it was initially thought to have originated from Jerusalem (hence the name) where it was first discovered in October of 1987, though it was later believed to have actually originated in Italy.

This virus, sometimes also known as the “Friday the 13th” virus, delivers two payloads, the first generally harmless but the second deleting any program run on a Friday the 13th—hence its name. After that first occurrence, Jerusalem had a history of re-emerging from time to time, the last known widespread event being in 1995.

CIH Virus
The CIH virus was so named for the initials of its creator, Chen Ing Hau. To a lesser degree, it was also known as the Chernobyl virus or the Spacefiller virus. The virus, triggered exactly a year after it had been created (April 26, 1998) after being inadvertently spread through a firmware update from Yamaha and a demo of the game SiN, caused infected computers to become unbootable.

The virus affected computers running the Windows 95, Windows 98, and Windows ME operating systems. Though it never truly died out, due to the limitations of the operating systems it was ‘compatible’ with, its affects in later years were mitigated and the devastation it caused in 1999 was not repeated.

Melissa was the world’s first widespread email worm—a piece of malware which makes copies of itself and spreads these copies using the contacts found in an email account—was first recognised in March of 1999. If you received an email containing the Melissa worm, and you were running MS Word 97, 2000 and Microsoft Outlook 97 or 98, Melissa would randomly select 50 of your Outlook contacts and send an email containing itself to them, and from there on the chain would continue.

Melissa was never designed to do any harm but was so successful in replicating itself that, due to the sheer volume of emails being sent within organisations, servers became overloaded and effectively shut down. This may seem crazy today, but remember, this was 1999, in the dark days of dial-up where everyone still huddled together in fear of the impending Y2K Armageddon. When apprehended, the creator of the worm, David L. Smith, received 20 months in prison and US$5000 in fines.

Anna Kournikova
February of 2001, right at the height of Anna’s fame and before her tennis skills were discovered to be questionable at best, hundreds and thousands of men—and probably a fair number of women—opened what seemed to be an innocent email with the subject line of “Here you have”. Attached to the email was what many people thought would be a picture of Anna Kournikova.

Like the Melissa worm, once opened, the Anna Kournikova worm did no harm to the computer it infected, but merely sent itself to the email contacts of the affected user.

The ‘brilliance’ of the Anna Kournikova worm was that it captured what interested people were and was able to proliferate in a speed that had, until then, never been seen before; a speed which in turn led to its notoriety in the news media.

To truly explain the effect malware has had in the technology industry, figures are much better than words. Right along the development of tech giants such as Microsoft and Apple, antivirus companies have been also been growing. In the early 90s, the combined revenue of all antivirus companies was less than US$1-billion. By 2010, this figure had grown to US$16.5-billion. Like the old adage says, “money talks”.

Author | Mvelase Peppetta

Mvelase Peppetta
Mvelase is a Senior Account Manager at Irvine Bartlett one of the most sought after full service public relations companies in South Africa. Mvelase is passionate about all things digital and the social media landscape, particularly as it relates to the integration of digital public relations management within the traditional... More