Vol. 8/No. 4 July 2007
Threat Focus

Believe it or Not: First Computer Virus Turns 25 Years Old

Much as people were amazed by early computer games, some got another surprise. The screen went blank and a poem appeared. The first widely distributed computer virus had appeared, in July 1982—making this month its 25th anniversary. It’s challenging to predict exactly what the next decades will bring with viruses and malware, but a security expert says threats will remain plentiful, evolve quickly, and pose serious risks.

Computer users who got the “Elk Cloner” virus, credited to Richard Skrenta, a high-school student from Pittsburgh, wondered why they saw: It will get on all your disks. It will infiltrate your chips. Yes it's Cloner! It will stick to you like glue. It will modify RAM too. Send in the Cloner!

To be sure, something first created as a prank has evolved into something far more complex, sophisticated, and potentially harmful, says SurfControl Director of Threat Data Systems Engineering Jeff Budzinski. “In the early 80s, most viruses were hoaxes, jokes, or nuisances created by authors just because they could,” he says. “Those viruses might have annoyed users or damaged their files, but there was no threat of financial loss. Today, it is an enterprise largely driven by profit motives. Authorship, distribution, and reaping the rewards are big-money businesses.”

In addition to being relatively harmless, early viruses didn’t spread anywhere nearly as far or as fast as they do now. “Virus propagation usually involved transfer of infected files over floppy disks from one PC to another,” Budzinski recalls. “Virus distribution was a slow process, and most people never encountered them.”

Now, of course, it can only take minutes before malware created anywhere in the world can wreak havoc on a global level. A subtle change over the years has been that boastful announcements by hackers telling of the infection have morphed into silent, rapidly evolving occurrences, Budzinski says.

“Recent anti-virus trends include large numbers of variants of a single virus,” he says. “The variants aim to challenge security systems that use traditional signature-based detection methods. A single variant is used for a relatively short period; by the time end users receive signature updates for it, distribution of additional variants is well underway.”

Ever-changing efforts to make money via viruses are being matched by those who fight them, Budzinski says. “As we’ve seen with spam and phishing, virus risks are manageable,” he says. “Security companies will continue to develop better anti-virus technology. In the Web and e-mail security arenas, vendors like SurfControl will continue to create security techniques such as multi-layered protection to provide better lines of defense.”

Learn more about keeping your systems free of viruses and other malware.

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