VIDEO: The Evolution of the Computer Virus

In May 2017, the WannaCry ransomware attack infected more than 230,000 computers in 150 countries, encrypting data, demanding Bitcoin ransom for its return, and disabling computer systems at the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, Spain’s biggest telecommunications provider, Russian banks, and much more. Economic losses from the cyberattack reached into the billions, even after a British security researcher discovered a “kill switch” that halted the initial spread of the virus.

Touted as the largest cyberattack in history, the WannaCry ransomware attack got us thinking: where exactly did such infections come from? In the video above, we study the evolution of computer viruses, hitting highlights and lowlights such as these:

    • In 1949, mathematician and computing pioneer John von Neumann presented the paper “Theory and Organization of Complicated Automata,” which described in detail the concept of a computer program that could reproduce. Bell Labs employees gave life to von Neumann’s theory in the 1950s with a game called “Core Wars,” which allowed two programmers to release software “organisms” and observe as they competed for control of the computer. British mathematician John Conway is credited with creating the first “virus” in the form of a life-emulating program or “cellular automaton” called the “Game of Life” in the 1960s.
    • In 1971, researcher Bob Thomas wrote the “Creeper” program to test and illustrate virus theory. The so-called “computer worm” was originally intended to move between mainframe computers, with a later version designed to copy itself and self-replicate between computers instead of simply moving. The software did not cause any actively malicious harm, instead displaying a message that read, “I’m the creeper: catch me if you can.”
    • The term “computer virus” was coined in the early 1980s by Fred Cohen, a Ph.D. student at the University of Southern California. His theory stated that self-replicating software could spread by attaching itself to existing programs as a way of attacking the security of multi-user computing systems.
    • In 1986, two Pakistani brothers, Basit Farooq Alvi and Amjad Farooq Alvi, wrote “Brain,” widely acknowledged as the first virus to infect machines running the early operating system MS DOS. The brothers did not mean any harm, however—they told Time Magazine that they wrote the program to protect their medical software from piracy and copyright infringement. “Brain” would replace the boot sector of a floppy disk with a copy of the virus, moving the real boot sector to another location and marking it as bad while greeting users with an ominous message that said, “Welcome to the Dungeon.”
    • In 1988, Festering Hate (aka Hate) became the first truly destructive computer virus, making minor changes to Apple II code and spreading to every system file it could find on the host computer, destroying hard drives, floppy disks, and system memory until it could no longer find any uninfected files. Hacker Morgan Davis ended Festering Hate’s run by writing the early software VirusMD, which quickly became a commercial product on its own and ushered in the beginning of the antivirus era.


In 2000, social engineering made its debut in the midst of the dot-com boom in the form of the ILoveYou virus. This deceptive strain attacked millions of computers by delivering an email attachment that read “Love-Letter-For-You.txt.vbs”—and millions of unsuspecting romantics opened it thinking they had received a love letter from an admirer.

In 2007, the Trojan virus concept hit the mainstream, with more and more news reports revealing that users were being duped into executing email attachments disguised to be unsuspicious. Unlike the ILoveYou virus, Trojan horses allow unauthorized access to the affected computer, often stealing users’ personal information such as banking information, passwords, or IP addresses. Unlike computer viruses and worms, Trojans typically do not attempt to inject themselves into other files or otherwise propagate.

This brings us to the present day, dominated by news about WannaCry and similar ransomware attempts. These viruses encrypt your data, allowing hackers to try and demand money (often paid in the unregulated currency Bitcoin) for its return. When hundreds of thousands of computers and billions of dollars are at stake, businesses need real security solutions that can protect their data, their clients, and their systems.

At CMIT Solutions, we understand the need to keep computers fully functioning and day-to-day operations on track. The best way to protect your business from computer viruses, worms, ransomware, malware, and more is through proactive maintenance and multi-layered monitoring that automatically deploys security patches and software updates while regularly and remotely backing up all data. We worry about your IT so you don’t have to, minimizing risk and giving you peace of mind in the face of such cybersecurity challenges. If you have questions about viruses, worms, or ransomware attacks, contact CMIT Solutions today.

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