The Evolution Of Computer Viruses History (P2)

This second installment of ‘The evolution of viruses’ will look at how malicious code used to spread before use of the Internet and e-mail became as commonplace as it is today, and the main objectives of the creators of those earlier viruses.
Until the worldwide web and e-mail were adopted as a standard means of communication the world over, the main mediums through which viruses spread were floppy disks, removable drives, CDs, etc., containing files that were already infected or with the virus code in an executable boot sector.

When a virus entered a system it could go memory resident, infecting other files as they were opened, or it could start to reproduce immediately, also infecting other files on the system. The virus code could also be triggered by a certain event, for example when the system clock reached a certain date or time.  In this case, the virus creator would calculate the time necessary for the virus to spread and then set a date –often with some particular significance- for the virus to activate. In this way, the virus would have an incubation period during which it didn’t visibly affect computers, but just spread from one system to another waiting for ‘D-day’ to launch its payload. This incubation period would be vital to the virus successfully infecting as many computers as possible.

One classic example of a destructive virus that lay low before releasing its payload was CIH, also known as Chernobyl. The most damaging version of this malicious code activated on April 26, when it would try to overwrite the flash-BIOS, the memory which includes the code needed to control PC devices. This virus, which first appeared in June 1998, had a serious impact for over two years and still continues to infect computers today.

Because of the way in which they propagate, these viruses spread very slowly, especially in comparison to the speed of today’s malicious code. Towards the end of the Eighties, for example, the Friday 13th (or Jerusalem) virus needed a long time to actually spread and continued to infect computers for some years. In contrast, experts reckon that in January 2003, SQLSlammer took just ten minutes to cause global communication problems across the Internet.

Notoriety versus stealth

For the most part, in the past, the activation of a malicious code triggered a series of on screen messages or images, or caused sounds to be emitted to catch the user’s attention.  Such was the case with the Ping Pong virus, which displayed a ball bouncing from one side of the screen to another. This kind of elaborate display was used by the creator of the virus to gain as much notoriety as possible. Nowadays however, the opposite is the norm, with virus authors trying to make malicious code as discreet as possible, infecting users’ systems without them noticing that anything is amiss.
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