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A History of Viruses on the Internet: Evolution, Impact, and Severity

Posted on May 14, 2011
A computer virus is simply a string of code or a small program that infects a computer. The effects of the infection can range from benign hoax or prank to the destruction of essential files and data structures. Throughout their history, computer viruses have cost individuals and companies billions of dollars and have spawned whole industries comprised of virus software and removal companies.
 
The term virus is often misapplied to refer to any malware such as adware, spyware, worms, or Trojan horses. These types of malware, however, do not have the ability to replicate themselves. Like a biological virus, computer viruses can replicate themselves and infect other computers. This is what makes them so dangerous to computers connected to either public or private networks. This article briefly discusses the history of viruses on the Internet and explores their evolution, impact, and severity to users of the largest public network in the world, the Internet.
 
History of Computer Viruses
 
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) created the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) in 1969 to link four universities and provide a packet switching network over which participants could share data and research. It was on this network that the first virus made its appearance.
 
In 1971, Bob Thomas of BBN Technologies created an experimental virus named Creeper. True to the virus definition, Creeper was capable of replicating itself and spreading remotely across the network to infect DEC PDP-10 computers which were running a certain operating system. Although ARAPNET was the forerunner of the Internet, it would be an entire decade before the general public was to be affected by self-replicating malware.
 
A virus named Rother J is generally credited as being the first computer virus to appear outside of a private network. Targeting the Apple DOS 3.3 operating system, Rother J spread not over a network, but through floppy disks shared between and among computers. Luckily, the effects of this virus created more of a prank than a dangerous threat. The Internet as a popular public network was still almost a decade away. However, viruses like Rother J paved the way for viruses spread over networks.
 
Prior to the Internet, many privately-owned networks and bulletin boards such as CompuServe and Prodigy dominated the remote communication networks. It was on these networks that viruses became rampant by infecting computers not through media sharing, but through downloads and executable malware.
 
By the time the Internet became a powerful public network, the Microsoft Windows operating system was already dominating the market. Naturally, virus writers began targeting Windows because it was not only the most prevalent operating system, it lent itself well to targeting because there were few ways to protect Windows from infection.
 
At that time, the virus writing community was hard at work exploiting vulnerabilities in Windows requiring Microsoft to patch them to end the threat. Since few people had broadband Internet connections during the 1990s, much vulnerability went un-patched even when fixes were available. Even today, proponents of Linux, Mac, and other operating systems insist that their operating systems are less vulnerable to viruses than Windows not because they are more secure, but because the virus writers tend to focus on the platform that is most popular.
 
At about the same time in the mid-1990s, Microsoft’s line of application software began to overtake the standards in the industry. In particular, programs such as Word and Excel rose very quickly in popularity due to the marketing efforts of the company. Many of these programs are used in both personal and office settings to share word-processing and spreadsheet files with others. This brought on a new era of virus threats to the world.
 
Programs from Microsoft Office such as Word and Excel use scripting languages to make macros possible. Virus authors can use these scripting languages to infect Word and Excel files to include viruses. Since these files are often shared over both public and private networks, they became the perfect transport medium for the spread of viruses.
 
Today, the largest virus threats are those transported over the Hyper-Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP) while victims visit web pages, engage in instant messaging, and share files over the Internet with strangers. In fact, many viruses are attached to files that are illegally copied and shared such as copyrighted material and software.
 
One of the newest virus threats comes from cross-site scripting. This type of malware is injected into a web application allowing a virus to spread through a client-side script or application. This type of distribution is successful because it allows the virus writer to ignore “access control” and “same origin” security measures put in place to retard the spread of viruses. Symantec, makers of the popular Norton Anti-virus software, reported that about 80% of all of 2007’s security vulnerabilities recorded by the company were cross-site scripting in nature.
 
Conclusion
 
Ranging from prank to significant threat over the past four decades, viruses have been with us since computers and networks have grown from a curiosity to a necessity. Although the media through which viruses spread have changed over time, the definition of a virus has not.
 
Unlike other malware, viruses are able to self-replicate and infect huge numbers of computers before being discovered and eliminated. Some viruses can even self-mutate, making them harder to detect and remove from a single or multiple machines. Regardless of the media or threat, viruses are likely to continue to be a major negative outcome of computers, networks, and file sharing.


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