Of Viruses and Men

Hi folks,

There surely isn’t much need to brief you with basics on computer viruses (neither on biological ones) as an introduction for this article.
Because today we’re going to tell you a few less known things about the evolution of computer viruses.
So let’s start by digging into the past, not as deep as 150 years ago as Charles Babbage’s machine had no virus issues at all, but still some 65 years ago deep, which in IT is rather a subject for archaeology.
In 1949, Hungarian-born American scientist John von Neumann published an article titled “Theory of self-reproducing automata“.
A theoretical work but nonetheless revolutionary as it described for the first time the idea and the principles of computer programs able to replicate themselves.
Such a visionary idea appearing so early shouldn’t be much of a surprise thinking that its originator, von Neumann, had revolutionary contributions in pure and applied mathematics, physics and economics (besides computing, that is). He created the theory of games for instance and described key steps in the development of nuclear and hydrogen bombs.
But unlike those, his bomb in computer sciences was to explode much later.

In 1971 Bob Thomas (working for BBN Technologies) wrote an experimental program to demonstrate how apps can spread by themselves through a network.
The self-cloning program was called “Creeper“. Its “signature” was the text message “I’m the creeper: catch me if you can” and it was displayed by “infected” machines, DEC PDP-10 running an operating system named Tenex.
It was meant just as a demonstration so let’s note the interesting fact that the first viruses weren’t created out of evil intentions.
One of Bob Thomas’ colleagues was Ray Tomlinson, the engineer who that same year (1971) invented the first network email and the one who put the “@” sign in email adresses in universal use eversince.
Tomlinson wrote an antidot program for the Creeper, called “Reaper“.
Reaper” was more like a ‘counter-virus’ so to speak (instead of ‘anti-virus’), as it was self-replicating too: it spreaded over the network and deleted Creeper whenever it encountered it.
Pretty slick, isn’t it?

The first microcomputer virus wasn’t created out of evil intent: in 1982 the then 15-year-old high school student Rich Skrenta wrote some self replicating-code for Apple II computers as a joke.
He named it Elk Cloner and this was the first boot-sector virus and the first one to get spread in the wild too.
At the time, microcomputers booted from floppy-disks.
An Elk Cloner infected floppy-disk would load the virus into the memory and each time a non-infected floppy disk was inserted, a copy of the entire DOS that included the Elk Cloner code was written on that disk, along with a signature byte which “marked” the disk as “infected” to tell apart infected from uninfected disks and prevent useless re-infections.
Being meant as a joke, Elk Cloner wasn’t harmful: every 50th time someone would boot from an infected disk it just displayed a little poem which surely must have convinced Apple II users that Skrenta had way more talent for code-writing than he had for poems-writing.

The year 1983 is an important milestone in the history of computer viruses as it’s the year when they got their name: viruses.
Frederick Cohen was then a student and not only did he gave the name and definition of viruses but later on he also created a virus to prove there can be no “universal” antivirus algorithm to detect all possible viruses.
He also devised the idea of positive viruses, which he supported by creating a compression virus which would infect executable files to make them smaller in size.
Cohen however was not the one to originally see the analogy between self-replicating programs and self-replicating cells: the term “virus” was sugested to him by his professor, Leonard Adleman.
Adleman, a professor of computer sciences and molecular biology (of course!) is the “A” within the “RSA” (Rivest–Shamir–Adleman) name of the widespread encryption algorithm used for example in https secure communications protocol over the Internet.
But Adleman not only pushed biology over computing, he also forced computing into biology too, by developing the DNA computing. Basically is is a form of computing that uses DNA, biochemistry and molecular biology instead of silicon-based machines.
You think this is too much of a sci-fi approach on computing?
Well, last January researchers announced they’ve succesfully stored a JPEG photograph, a set of  Shakespearean sonnets and an audio file containing Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” famous speech on DNA digital data storage!

So getting back to viruses in silicon-based computing, during computers-as-a-hobby times virus programs were meant just as jokes or pranks.
Since then, the number of users increased by several orders of magnitude, users got inter-connected, computers turned from toys to tools and what was once a hobby for a few became a mandatory working skill for almost anyone.
The stakes changed and so did viruses, accordingly.
Zillions of forms and variants of malware (viruses, worms, trojans and alike) were and are constantly created but not for laughs anymore: they are now used for crippling computers, for stealing data or for being literally used as weapons in real-life conflicts.
And as expected, viruses triggered an ‘immune’ response: the formation of an entirely dedicated, specialized sector, the IT security industry.
Probably an everlasting clash, just as in biology.
But maybe -just as in biology- the very fact that virus type of software already exists is one evolution sign that sooner or later self-aware software “organisms” will inevitably come to existence too.

Bye, folks!

Bogdan

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