[AI] Making the first virus

vishnu ramchandani vishnuhappy at yahoo.com
Tue Sep 4 00:28:01 EDT 2007

Making the first virus

25 years after creating the first computer virus, the
programmer looks back at what he started


Rich Skrenta created the first computer virus, back in
1982, as a harmless prank on his schoolmates
What began as a ninth-grade school prank, a way to
trick his already-suspicious friends who had fallen
for his earlier practical jokes, has earned american
Rich Skrenta notoriety as the first person ever to let
loose a personal computer virus.

Although over the next 25 years, Skrenta started the
online news business Topix, helped launch a
collaborative Web directory now owned by Time Warner
Netscape and wrote countless other computer programs,
he is still remembered most for unleashing ‘Elk
Cloner’ on the world.

“It was some dumb little practical joke,” Skrenta, now
40, said. “I guess if you had to pick between being
known for this and not being known for anything,
I’d rather be known for this. But it’s an odd
placeholder for (all that) I’ve done.”

‘Elk Cloner’ – which self-replicated like all other
viruses – bears little resemblance to the malicious
programs of today. Yet in retrospect, it was a
harbinger of all the security headaches that would
only grow as more people got computers – and
eventually connected them with one another over the

Skrenta’s friends were already distrusting him
because, in swapping computer games and other software
as part of piracy circles which were common at the
time, Skrenta often altered the floppy disks he gave
out to launch taunting on-screen messages. Many
friends simply started refusing disks from him.

So during a break from school, Skrenta hacked away on
his Apple II computer – the dominant personal computer
then – and figured out how to get the code
to launch those messages onto disks automatically.


He developed what is known as a ‘boot sector virus’.
When it boots, or starts up, an infected disk places a
copy of the virus in the computer’s memory.

Whenever someone inserts a clean disk into the machine
and types the command ‘catalog’ for a list of files, a
copy of the virus gets written onto that
disk as well. The newly infected disk is passed on to
other people, other machines and other locations.

The prank, though annoying to victims, is relatively
harmless compared with the viruses of today. Every
50th time someone booted an infected disk, a poem
Skrenta wrote would appear, saying in part, “It will
get on all your disks; it will infiltrate your chips.”

Skrenta started circulating the virus in early 1982
among friends at his school and at a local computer
club. Years later, he would continue to hear stories
of other victims, including a sailor during the first
Gulf War nearly a decade later.

Skrenta poses with his first personal computer, on
which he wrote the program

Skrenta’s virus was just the tip of iceberg. With the
growth of the Internet came a new way to spread
viruses: email. ‘Melissa’ (1999), ‘Love Bug’ (2000)
and ‘SoBig’ (2003) are among the most famous of this

Although some of the early viruses overwhelmed
networks, later ones corrupted documents or had other
destructive properties.

Compared with early threats, “the underlying
technology is similar, (but) the things viruses can do
once they get hold of the computer has changed
said Richard Ford, a US-based computer science
professor at the Florida Institute of Technology.

Later, viruses spread through instant-messaging and
file-sharing software. More recently, they have been
created to steal personal data such as passwords
or to create relay stations for making junk email more
difficult to trace.

Although worldwide outbreaks aren’t as common these
days, “believe it or not, there’s exponentially more
malware today than there ever was,” said Dave
Marcus, a research manager for McAfee’s Avert Labs. 

“We find 150 to 175 new pieces of malware every single
day. Five years ago, it would have been maybe 100 new
pieces a week.”

But even as corporations and Internet service
providers step up their defences, virus writers are
looking to emerging platforms, including mobile
and Web-based services like social-networking sites.


That’s not to say Skrenta should get the blame anytime
someone gets spam sent through a virus-enabled relay
or finds a computer slow to boot 

because of a lingering pest. After all, there is no
evidence that most virus writers even knew of Skrenta
or his craft.

Fred Cohen, a security expert who wrote his PhD
dissertation in 1986 on computer viruses, said the
conditions were right, and with more and more homes
getting computers, “it was all a matter of time before
this happened.”

In fact, a number of viruses preceeded the ‘Elk
Cloner’, although they were experimental or limited in
scope. Many consider Skrenta’s to be the first true
virus because it spread in the wild on the dominant
home computers of its day.

“You had other people even at the time saying, ‘We had
this idea, we even coded it up, but we thought it was
awful and we never released it’,” said Skrenta.

And where was his restraint?

Skrenta cheekily replies: “I was in the ninth grade.” 

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