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Silver anniversary of the computer virus

It's time to sing happy birthday for the little coded monster which has caused business loses worth billions worldwide, writes Puneet Mehrotra.

india Updated: Aug 03, 2007 04:22 IST

"No angel born in hell, could break that Satan's spell"
Don McLean, American Pie

Birthdays are special days, for the angel, for the devil. It's time to sing happy birthday for the little coded monster which has caused business loses worth billions worldwide. Exactly 25 years ago the computer virus was born. Believe it or not the virus is actually older than even the IBM PC and the irony is the first machine to be attacked by the virus was Steve Job's Apple II. So much for Apple's claim of being virus free, which literally lost its virginity to the virus even before computers were adopted on a mass scale. The name of the virus was Elk Cloner and it spread through floppy disks. Elk Coner was a romantic at heart and did nothing more than flash a little poem on the screen.

It will get on all your disks
It will infiltrate your chips
Yes it's Cloner!

The importance of being a devil

The little scourge is heavily cursed by businesses, data centers and individuals alike but little do people realise its importance in business terms. Imagine if sun shone all day and night, perhaps darkness would a much sought after salvation. The point is that computer viruses have made a substantial contribution to the economy. The anti-virus market is growing at a whopping pace. Every news about a virus is followed by an upsurge in profits of the anti-virus companies. The future for anti-virus companies looks even more lucrative as the evolution of viruses gets more sophisticated.

Norton, McAfee, Symantec, Trends and numerous others like them owe their very existence to viruses. They may have ventured into supplementary products now but the fact remains they are the ones who profited the maximum. The billion dollar empires they have built is thanks to sassers and wonderbugs and plexuses and hundreds of their kin.

The evolution of the virus

Fed on a diet of sophisticated code and created by geeks the virus has now evolved into an intelligent being. If Elk Coner was a simpleton satisfied with simply reciting its little 3 line poem in the electronic cave age, the new viruses are lethal creatures. Destruction is what they demand and coded poison is what they use. The descendents of Elk Coner are deadly and even criminal. The virus has now evolved into worms, trojans and deadly malware affecting millions of computers and causing loses worth billions. Viruses like 'I love you' 'Melissa' 'Sasser', 'Bagel' and 'Code Red' have meant huge financial loses to businesses worldwide.

According to Prabhat Singh, Director - India, Security Response Operations, Symantec Corporation, "Till mid 1990 malicious codes were usually loud in nature, named after its creator and intended to attain fame and have fun at the expense of damaging infrastructure. It was only after late 1990 that devious codes were created with an objective of financial gain. These new age viruses are platform agnostic and can easily spread in various formats."

The motivation to create a virus

Is it about creating footprints in the sands of time or is it an ego trip? Nobody has real answers but maybe the motivation to create is a virus is a similar one to commit crime. David Perry, global director of education at Trend Micro says "Almost all viruses are written for the same reason that people put graffiti on walls. It's simply a desire to claw their initials into the middle of your hard drive."

The extent of damage

Prabhat from Symantec adds "When compared to the havoc that a worm or virus causes today, the extent of damage a classical virus caused in the early 1990's was negligible. Initially, the vector of propagation of a virus was limited to floppies and electronic bulletin boards. For instance, one of the first computer worms, Morris worm, spread via the internet, multiplied itself several times infecting about 6,000 major UNIX machines. In the last few years, viruses have been wildly proliferating through cyberspace and causing billions in damage."

The last word

Little did the poetic Elk Cloner know its decadents would wreak so much damage. Viruses like 'I love you', 'Melissa', 'Sasser', 'Bagel' and 'Code Red' inherited the violent streaks of Cloner's genes. The viruses business isn't humorous anymore with the financial problems they create for businesses. What is worrisome is that as systems and applications get intelligent so is the evolution of viruses. Maybe the eternal battle of good and bad continues. This time in cyberspace.

Puneet Mehrotra is a web strategist at www.cyberzest.com and manages www.thebusinessedition.com