25 years today: The story of the world’s first PC virus

25 years ago today, the world’s first computer virus was born in Lahore, Pakistan — a development that would spawn countless problems for ordinary users and a multi-billion dollar industry dedicated to protecting the world’s information from malicious software.

As reported by Time magazine in 1988, a shop called Brain Computer Services, run by a pair of brothers, Amjit and Basit Farooq Alvi, was in the business of selling brand-name computer programs, like Lotus 1-2-3 and WordStar. The programs, which normally cost hundreds of dollars were going for prices as low as US$1.50. This resulted in steady traffic from American backpackers and students keen to snap up the bargain prices.

But unbeknownst to the users, the floppy disks that they were taking home contained a few lines of malicious code.

Time magazine reports that “Every time an unsuspecting user lent his new disk to a friend or colleague, and every time the disk was run on a machine shared by other users, the code spread from one computer to another. Before long, the so-called Brain or Pakistani virus had found its way onto at least 100 000 floppy disks, sometimes with data-destroying impact.”

Apparently the brothers came up with the idea for the virus after they realised that some computer programming software which they had written was being copied and used all over Lahore without their permission. But there is more to the story: The brothers only sold the infected discs to foreigners, Pakistanis were given clean, uncontaminated goods.

According to Time, “The brothers’ somewhat confused rationalisation hinges on a loophole in Pakistani law. According to Basit, copyright protection in Pakistan does not extend to computer software. Therefore, he says, it is not illegal for local citizens to trade in bootleg disks; technically, they are not engaged in software piracy. Then why infect American buyers? ‘Because you are pirating,’ says Basit. ‘You must be punished.'”

Sometime in 1987, the brothers decided that they had taught the world a lesson, and stopped selling their infected goods. But the rabbit was out of the bag and the computer virus in all its forms has been with us ever since.

In another interesting note, the original Time story ends with a quote from John McAfee, who said “”I don’t admire what he did, but I admire the way he did it. He may be the best virus designer the world has ever seen.” McAfee, of course, is the man who went on to found the world-renowned McAfee virus company and make millions of dollars from the industry which began 25 years ago today.



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