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The History of Malware and Viruses

Posted on by Dawna M. Roberts in SecurityDecember 28, 2020

We often hear a lot about specific malware attacks and the resulting consequences, but have you ever wondered about the history of malware and how this trend began and evolved to be what it is today?

The Early Years - The Dawn of Computers

Although it may seems surprising, the idea of malware has been around since the dawn of computers which was 1949. Computer scientists theorized about self-replicating computer “organisms” that could wreak havoc and take over if left untreated.

The first actual computer viruses were seen in the early 1970s and were actually created by scientists testing the theory of a self-replicating worm they dubbed “Creeper Worm.” Creeper was first unleashed via ARPANET and then self-replicated to other devices and displayed a message saying “I’m the creeper, catch me if you can.” The virus was just an experiment and not designed to do any harm, those types of viruses and malware came later. 

history of malware

Then in the early 1980s Fred Cohn coined the term “computer virus” in 1986 in this P.h.D thesis. He defined it as “A program that can infect other programs by modifying them to include a, possibly evolved, version of itself.”

Some other notable early viruses were simple and designed only to replicate to prove that they could. Elk Cloner (written by a 15-year old) infected dozens of computers and display a catchy poem once infected. Things progressed with Brain Boot Sector Virus that was written by two Pakistan bothers testing loopholes in their company’s software. It was the first MS-DOS virus.

The first malicious (known) Trojan was PC-Write Trojan that piggybacked on a popular piece of shareware called PC-Writer. Once it infected the computer, the Trojan erased all the user’s files. 

In the early 1990s, the Michelangelo Virus got a lot of attention and was expected to hit harder than it did but only infected about 10,000 computers. But this one got people talking and the public took notice of this rising threat. Then the Melissa Virus infected countless machines using the Outlook address book and sending mass emails.

Worms and Viruses

Probably the biggest leap in malware took place between 2000-2010. During this decade, numerous threats emerged and their sophistication grew. Another notable event was the emergence of the Sony rootkit which became the framework for all current day malware. SQL injection attacks also soared during this time.

Some popular worms and viruses during this prolific period were:

  • ILOVEYOU Worm - sent via email, infected about 50 million computers including government systems shutting down email servers and costing about $5.5 billion in damages.
  • 2001 - Anna Kournikova Virus.
  • SQL Slammer Worm - infected 75,000 computers in 10 minutes.
  • Koobface Virus - malware that traveled from computer to social network sites.
  • Conficker Worm - another devastating worm causing enormous damage.

Trojans and Ransomware

The second decade of 2000 brought organized crime and state-backed players into the malware arena. The result meant a huge jump in evolution, efficiency and a switch from individuals to corporate and government targets. These cyber gangs are harder to track, well-funded, well trained and they continue to evolve their tactics to evade detection while also increasing their growth and threat payload. 

Some of the most damaging attacks included:

  • Stuxnet Worm - this scary piece of malware was aimed at Iran’s nuclear program. 
  • Zeus Trojan - this software was one of the first banking Trojans and is still used today in man-in-the-middle attacks.
  • Cryptolocker - one of the first ransomware malware.
  • Backoff - Point-of-Sale (POS) malware used to steal credit card data.
  • Cerber - the most popular form of ransomware ever used.
  • WannaCry Ransomware - discovered by the NSA, WannaCry affected victims globally (banks, corporations, hospitals, etc.). 

Botnets, Mobile Infections, and IoT Attacks

As the playing field expanded from computers to ATM machines, smart cars, TV remotes, mobile devices, wearables, and now IoT appliances, hackers have modified their malware to propagate across the entire digital landscape so that nothing connected online is safe. They use automatic scripts (botnets) to execute code and add devices to the network without any human intervention. 

The infection of devices other than computers and phones is not theory. Just about every device out there has vulnerabilities and hackers have successfully found ways to infiltrate and take control. As these cybercriminals gain a stronger foothold in the door, manufacturers are stepping up their security protocols and finding new ways to secure devices. One successful technique is through multi-factor authentication where the user needs three types of information to gain access or control the system. 

How You Can Stay Safe

The number one way you can stay safe from malware is never click a link or download an attachment from an email. Other tips include:

  • Run antivirus/anti-malware on all your devices.
  • Only download software from trusted sources.
  • Never trust that an email, text, or ad is from who it says it is. Hackers are experts at tricking the public. Use an email lookup tool to check who the sender is.
  • Never act on emotion, take a few minutes and do your homework before logging on or providing personal details.
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