As long as computers have been in an academic or home setting, people have been developing programs that take advantage of computer vulnerabilities for a number of purposes: from the more sinister purposes of espionage, subterfuge or cyberwarfare, or they’re the result of security troubleshooting, a bored programmer looking to create something interesting, a prankster looking to embarrass some organisation or even entire governments. Either way, the story of self-replicating software and malware in general is as long as the history of the computer.

John von Neumann’s theory on ‘Self-Reproducing Automata’ is the main framework by which malware is created. If you can isolate a harmful program like a virus onto a single computer, the virus is quarantined and a breakout is close to impossible without an Ethernet connection. Also, it’s very unlikely that a victim would deliberately spread malware, so allowing it to self-propagate and spread to other computers or devices means it can wreak havoc with little input from the virus creator. It’s why we frequently call it a ‘virus’ because it spreads much like the biological pathogen it took its name from.

One of the earliest self-propagating computer programs was the Creeper program, which infected computers at BBN Technologies in 1971. This wasn’t harmful, it merely displayed the message “I’m the creeper: catch me if you can”. Eventually, it was caught by another self-replicating program named Reaper. Also in the 70s, the first Trojan Horse was developed. While the program was asking the users questions to determine what animal the user was thinking of, a sister program copied itself to every directory the user could access. While ANIMAL/PERVADE wasn’t harmful or even designed to be so, it laid the bedrock for what is by far the most likely form of computer infection today.

By 1986, IBM-Compatible PCs ruled the roost, with a good balance of price, power and ubiquity that led to it appearing in homes and offices around the western world. Then a boot sector virus called Brain began appearing on hundreds of thousands of machines. Yet again, the program wasn’t meant to spread as far and wide as it did: it only appeared on software infected by the designers, sold from their small shop in Lahore to westerners, who then took it home and attempted to copy it and sell it on.

The Brain virus damaged files, stole system memory, slowed down the hard drive and hid a copyright message in the boot sector, displaying the creator’s phone numbers, names and address. After receiving a torrent of angry phone calls from around the globe, the Alvi brothers began to realise just how far their virus had spread from Pakistan to the US and UK, causing a press sensation that alerted the public to the vulnerabilities of personal computing. Bearing in mind the transmission method was floppy disks, the fact that the virus spread so far in a world before the Internet is astonishing.

Since then, malware has fully harnessed the Internet for propagation, which will be discussed in another part next week. Chetaru is a leading digital design agency based in Darlington, UK and Indore, India. We specialise in website design and helping you sustain your online presence via social media, SEO and mobile applications. Take a look at our current and previous and current clients here and see if Chetaru has the skill and technical brilliance you need.

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