My 9/13/09 Missoulian column
What would a brief history of the Internet be without a mention of the first computer virus?
A virus is one member in the family of malware that includes the “bad uncles” of trojan horses, worms and others. And these days, viruses are the “poorer cousins,” less suited to stealing personal information and sending spam than trojans and others.
But the concept of rouge software – programs that do things outside of the knowledge and/or control of an unsuspecting user – had to begin somewhere.
And for the sake of this history, the “first” virus I’m talking about is the first virus in the “wild,” that is, one that was released out of computer where it was first developed and, as a resulted, propagated itself.
Generally speaking, the first virus in the wild was one called Elk Cloner, developed in 1982 by Rich Skrenta. (In 1971, a virus propagated on ARPANET, but it was limited to that network.)
Elk Cloner spread itself to Apple computers only by the floppy data disks exchanged between computers, and it didn’t do anything more than pop up an annoying message.
Elk Cloner was a hack, in the good sense of the word: a clever trick that showed how computers worked and wasn’t destructive, very different than almost all of today’s malware.
Skrenta writes on his blog about the flash of inspiration that resulted in Elk Cloner: “The ‘aha’ moment was when I realized I could essentially get my program to move around by ‘itself.’ “
And so Elk Cloner entered into computer history; you can read the source code of the virus at Skrenta’s blog and read what he thinks of it after these 27 years.
Soon after 1982, the concept of viruses spread among computer aficionados and programmers, and within a few years, “bad” viruses were spreading on IBM compatible computers that ran Windows. And spreading via e-mail and the Internet, not just by disks.
And that’s another interesting part of the history of Elk Cloner. It only “worked” on the Apple IIE, one of Apple’s computers first sold to the public. The reason it’s interesting is that right now, there are no viruses in the wild for Macs. But there are hundreds of new destructive Windows viruses released every month.