Science & Technology

The Computer Worm Turns 25


The Christian Science Monitor talks with Richard Skrenta, widely credited with creating the first computer virus back in 1982, back when Alan Alda was pitching Ataris (no wonder they didn't make it). The first virus, notes CSM, was written for the Apple II and deposited doggerel on your flippy-floppy drive: "It will get on all your disks/ It will infiltrate your chips/ Yes it's Cloner!"

Then things changed:

There was the infamous "Morris worm" that wiggled through the nascent Internet in 1988. Programmed by a Cornell University student, the worm clogged systems across the country and cost researchers up to $10 million in lost time as they weeded out the self-replicating code.

Then came the "Michelangelo virus," a ticking-bomb program that threatened to erase thousands of hard drives simultaneously on March 6, 1992. Like the Y2K bug that followed, however, Michelangelo scared more people than it hurt.

These early codes and the scores that came in between had a much different goal than today's crop of malware. They were designed to vandalize, earn bragging rights, and tinker with new technology. It was a time of hobbyists, says Zulfikar Ramzan, a senior principal researcher at the computer security firm Symantec in Cupertino, Calif.

But around 2001, the trend shifted. Amateur-made viruses gave way to a new breed—one that was more evolved, relied on stealth, and targeted your wallet.

Ah for the all good old days, when we wuz young and green and viruses were done for the fun of it, not just filthy lucre.

The computer virus may well have morphed into a useful metaphor for an age of infectious and chronic but not deadly diseases (think herpes) and social realities (think terrorism). They are out there, they're really a pain in the ass, they waste time and money, and the best we can do is keep it all at arm's length via detection and eradication programs. Hell, maybe the computer virus is a useful metaphor for government, too.

More about computer viruses here.