The Evolution Of Computer Viruses History (P7)

This seventh edition on the history of computer viruses will look at how the development of Windows and Visual Basic has influenced the evolution of viruses, as with the development of these, worldwide epidemics also evolved such as the first one caused by Melissa in 1999.

While Windows changed from being an application designed to make DOS easier to manage to a 32-bit platform and operating system in its own right, virus creators went back to using assembler as the main language for programming viruses.

Versions 5 and 6 of Visual Basic (VB) were developed, making it the preferred tool, along with Borland Delphi (the Pascal development for the Windows environment), for Trojan and worm writers. Then, Visual C, a powerful environment developed in C for Windows, was adopted for creating viruses, Trojans and worms. This last type of malware gained unusual strength, taking over almost all other types of viruses. Even though the characteristics of worms have changed over time, they all have the same objective: to spread to as many computers as possible, as quickly as possible.

With time, Visual Basic became extremely popular and Microsoft implemented part of the functionality of this language as an interpreter capable of running script files with a similar syntax.

At the same time as the Win32 platform was implemented, the first script viruses also appeared: malware inside a simple text file. These demonstrated that not only executable files (.EXE and .COM files) could carry viruses. As already seen with BAT viruses, there are also other means of propagation, proving the saying "anything that can be executed directly or through a interpreter can contain malware." To be specific, the first viruses that infected the macros included in Microsoft Office emerged. As a result, Word, Excel, Access and PowerPoint become ways of spreading ‘lethal weapons’, which destroyed information when the user simply opened a document.

Melissa and self-executing worms

The powerful script interpreters in Microsoft Office allowed virus authors to arm their creations with the characteristics of worms. A clear example is Melissa, a Word macro virus with the characteristics of a worm that infects Word 97 and 2000 documents. This worm automatically sends itself out as an attachment to an e-mail message to the first 50 contacts in the Outlook address book on the affected computer. This technique, which has unfortunately become very popular nowadays, was first used in this virus which, in 1999, caused one of the largest epidemics in computer history in just a few days. In fact, companies like Microsoft, Intel or Lucent Technologies had to block their connections to the Internet due to the actions of Melissa.

The technique started by Melissa was developed in 1999 by viruses like VBS/Freelink, which unlike its predecessor sent itself out to all the contacts in the address book on the infected PC. This started a new wave of worms capable of sending themselves out to all the contacts in the Outlook address book on the infected computer. Of these, the worm that most stands out from the rest is VBS/LoveLetter, more commonly known as ‘I love You’, which emerged in May 2000 and caused an epidemic that caused damage estimated at 10,000 million euros. In order to get the user’s attention and help it to spread, this worm sent itself out in an e-mail message with the subject ‘ILOVEYOU’ and an attached file called ‘LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.TXT.VBS’. When the user opened this attachment, the computer was infected.

As well as Melissa, in 1999 another type of virus emerged that also marked a milestone in virus history. In November of that year, VBS/BubbleBoy appeared, a new type of Internet worm written in VB Script. VBS/BubbleBoy was automatically run without the user needing to click on an attached file, as it exploited a vulnerability in Internet Explorer 5 to automatically run when the message was opened or viewed. This worm was followed in 2000 by JS/Kak.Worm, which spread by hiding behind Java Script in the auto-signature in Microsoft Outlook Express, allowing it to infect computers without the user needing to run an attached file. These were the first samples of a series of worms, which were joined later on by worms capable of attacking computers when the user is browsing the Internet.
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