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Anyone with a home computer knows better than to leave his/her computer unprotected against viruses, Trojans, and other assorted malware. They make your computer run slowly, they corrupt your files, they flood your inbox with spam, and so on and so on. For as long as there have been home computers, there have been computer viruses. If you've been keeping up with Apple, you may remember some years ago when Steve Jobs was selling Macs on the basis that Mac users don't ever need to worry about viruses. Great sales pitch, to be sure, but more recently, Steve Jobs has sheepishly admitted that "Mac users may want to invest in some anti-virus software, after all." So, no matter your operating system, your computer is not safe from viruses. Even a computer sold on the strength of being immune to viruses is not, in fact, immune. The fact is that the people who program these computer viruses are just as capable of keeping up with the technology as the people who program anti-virus software. There is a constant evolution on both sides. As the anti-virus software gets stronger, the virus makers have to get stronger to keep infecting computers, and as the viruses get stronger, the anti-virus must be made stronger in order to fight off virus infections. In all likelihood, this sort of constant one-upmanship between virus and anti-virus will probably continue for as long as the modern home computer is a part of our daily lives. In the interest of giving the reader a full understanding of computer viruses and how to keep one’s computer safe from them, we'll start off with...
THE DEFINITION OF A VIRUS
The term "virus" is actually a broad label that is applied to a number of categories of malicious software. An actual "computer virus" in the strictest sense of the term is defined as a program that can make a copy of itself and infect a user's computer without that user's knowledge or consent. The word "virus" is also applied to malware that doesn't quite fall into this category, like spybots, adware, worms, and so on. These programs are not technically "viruses," but using the term “virus” as shorthand for all malware gets the point across quickly.
Although they may be able to infect your computer without your knowledge, many spybots and adware bots are not actually capable of self-replication, and thus, are not technically viruses.
A Trojan may contain a virus, but a Trojan is actually something that you download onto your computer with your own consent. It is, as the name suggests, a file that promises to be one thing, but is in fact another, such as an application that displays pop-up ads on your computer every time you start an Internet browser, or even spybots, capable of stealing vital information to be sent to remote users. A worm is a program that will download itself to your computer without your consent. It's interesting to note that worms are not inherently necessarily malevolent.
There was a software company in Japan that was working on "benevolent worms." These were worm programs that would find routes around your computer's security and patch them up. While these programmers were working with the best of intentions, the project was a failure simply because these benevolent worms were nonetheless eating up valuable bandwidth, which is the primary reason that worms are such a nasty thing to deal with in the first place. Spyware is used, as the name suggests, to literally spy on users. While you are using your computer, a remote user can actually observe from, perhaps, thousands of miles away, writing down your email passwords and credit card numbers as you work. Other spybots may not show your work in progress to other users, but may record certain details and send them to a hacker at a later date. Adware and Spamware are exactly what you think they are. They find websites that you visit frequently, they mark your email address and your Internet proxy address, and they flood you with tons of spam and pop-ups. It's worth knowing the definitions of all of these different types of viruses simply so you'll know what you're looking for when shopping for anti-virus programs. Most of us are happy to simply keep calling them all "viruses." but a program that boasts of its capability to search for and destroy viruses may actually not be able to do the same for adware, spambots, spyware, worms, trojans, and so on. In other words, either make sure that your security program can check for all of the above or use a combination of various programs to make certain that you are fully protected.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE COMPUTER VIRUS
The very first computer virus was a viral worm known as THE CREEPER. This bizarre virus was created in 1971 as an experiment by Bob Thomas, a programmer with BBN Technologies Research and Development. Thomas simply wanted to explore the possibilities of a self-replicating program, and hence, the first virus was born. The Creeper would infect DEC PDP-10 computers running on the TENEX operating system and display the message, "I'M THE CREEPER, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN." The program was made as simply an experiment, but when these computers were plugged into ARPANET, the predecessor to the modern Internet, THE CREEPER found its way onto a number of remote computers outside of the lab. The virus spread faster than Thomas had ever intended or hoped for, and some time later, a program known as The Reaper was released. The Reaper was the very first anti-virus program ever designed, created specifically to clear computers of THE CREEPER virus. It is unknown who wrote The Reaper, but there are some theories that it was Bob Thomas, the same programmer who wrote THE CREEPER. Some suspect that Thomas perhaps released the virus on purpose, knowing he could sell the anti-virus, but it is more likely that he simply wanted to reverse any damage he had done through his research and development experiment with BBN. The first virus to actually go "into the wild," as in “outside” of that early network of computer labs, was the Elk Cloner virus. The Elk Cloner virus was written by a high school student, Richard Skrenta, in 1981. The Elk Cloner virus was literally written as a practical joke. It would make its way onto Apple DOS 3.3 systems via floppy disk and display a short poem, beginning with the line "Elk Cloner: The Program with a Personality." If you used a floppy disk infected with the virus, then every floppy disk on which you copied a file would then become infected with the virus, and as such, the virus would then spread to anyone you would loan the disk to, and so on and so on. Skrenta had no idea how far the virus would go when he first wrote it onto a computer game disk, assuming it would maybe surprise a few of his friends, get a laugh out of them, and that would be the end of it. However, 1981 was an era where the home computer was first starting to make its humble debut, and by so many degrees of separation, the Elk Cloner virus slowly made its way onto hundreds or thousands of computers. Today, Skrenta has actually grown from his origins as a computer prankster to become a very successful programmer and game designer in his own right, having developed one of the earliest online multiplayer games throughout the early nineties, Olympia, so while Skrenta may be blamed for having created the first home computer virus, he can also be thanked for having created a precursor to modern online gaming.
While these early viruses were made as experiments or as practical jokes, it wouldn't be long before criminals had found a new tool to commit more crimes. The viruses we're dealing with today are not merely designed to get a laugh out of their targets or to explore the possibilities of modern technology. They are, by and large, designed only to exploit. The first piece of actual malware (as in a virus specifically intended to harm the user's computer) ever written was the (c)Brain virus, written by the Farooq Alvi Brothers, a software design team operating out of Pakistan. The program would infect DOS systems by rendering 7kb of space into unusable bad sectors. 7kb doesn't sound like much today, but this was back in 1986, when seven kilobytes were actually quite precious. The virus would slow a computer down, but would do no actual irreparable damage. Booting up would display the following messages... "Welcome to the Dungeon © 1986 Brain & Amjads (pvt) Ltd VIRUS_SHOE RECORD V9.0 Dedicated to the dynamic memories of millions of viruses who are no longer with us today - Thanks GOODNESS!! BEWARE OF THE er..VIRUS : this program is catching program follows after these messages....$#@%$@!!" "Welcome to the Dungeon © 1986 Basit * Amjad (pvt) Ltd. BRAIN COMPUTER SERVICES 730 NIZAM BLOCK ALLAMA IQBAL TOWN LAHORE-PAKISTAN PHONE: 430791,443248,280530. Beware of this VIRUS.... Contact us for vaccination..." The virus actually included the phone numbers and names of its makers. This is because the virus was actually created for a very good reason. The Farooq Alvi Brothers specialized in making software for hospitals, and a program they had written for heart monitoring machines was being pirated. Pirated versions often wound up becoming corrupted, and this could easily lead to accidental deaths. The (c)Brain virus is easily justified from an ethical standpoint, but, unfortunately, the virus wound up spreading not only through the pirating networks, but onto innocent home computers as well. This practice of using a virus to deter would-be pirates is still in use today, though it is illegal. Thanks to the advent of file sharing programs like Napster, and later, Bear Share and Limewire, many music and film distributors have taken to releasing Trojans and viruses onto these file-sharing networks disguised as popular songs and movies. The issue of right and wrong here is debatable, but it does remain illegal. Today, the Farooq Alvi Brothers still make a living as programmers, being amongst the leading Internet providers in Pakistan. Throughout the 1980s when people started using home computers more and more, we saw the first real wave of computer viruses. This was, of course, before the Internet, but viruses still managed to proliferate thanks to interchangeable media.