11 infamous malware attacks: The first and the worst

Viruses and other malware spreading for sinister or baffling reasons has been a staple of cyberpunk novels and real-life news stories alike for decades. And in truth, there have been computer viruses on the internet since before it was the internet. This article will take a look at some of the most important milestones in the evolution of malware: These entries each represent a novel idea, a lucky break that revealed a gaping security hole, or an attack that turned to be particularly damaging—and sometimes all three.

  1. Creeper virus (1971)
  2. Brain virus (1986)
  3. Morris worm (1988)
  4. ILOVEYOU worm (2000)
  5. Mydoom worm (2004)
  6. Zeus trojan (2007)
  7. CryptoLocker ransomware (2013)
  8. Emotet trojan (2014)
  9. Mirai botnet (2016)
  10. Petya ransomware/NotPetya wiper (2016/7)
  11. Clop ransomware (2019-Present)

1. Creeper virus (1971)

Computer pioneer John von Neumann’s posthumous work Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata, which posited the idea of computer code that could reproduce and spread itself, was published in 1966. Five years later, the first known computer virus, called Creeper, was a written by Bob Thomas. Written in PDP-10 assembly language, Creeper could reproduce itself and move from computer to computer across the nascent ARPANET.

Creeper did no harm to the systems it infected—Thomas developed it as a proof of concept, and its only effect was that it caused connected teletype machines to print a message that said “I’M THE CREEPER: CATCH ME IF YOU CAN.” We’re mentioning it here despite its benign nature because it was the first, and set the template for everything that followed. Shortly after Creeper’s release, Ray Tomlinson, best known for implementing the first email program, wrote a rival program called Reaper that spread from computer to computer eliminating Creeper’s code.

2. Brain virus (1986)

Creeper was designed to leap across computer networks, but for most of the 1970s and ’80s that infection vector was in limited simply because most computers operated in isolation. What malware did spread from computer to computer did so via floppy disks. The earliest example is Elk Cloner, which was created by a 15-year-old as a prank and infected Apple II computers. But probably the most important of this generation of viruses was one that came to be known as Brain, and started spreading worldwide in 1986.

Brain was developed by computer programmers (and brothers) Amjad and Basit Farooq Alvi, who lived in Pakistan and had a business selling medical software. Because their programs were often pirated, they created a virus that could infect the boot sector of pirated disks. It was mostly harmless but included contact information for them and an offer to “disinfect” the software.

Whether they could actually “fix” the problem isn’t clear, but as they explained 25 years later, they soon started receiving phone calls from all over the world, and were shocked by how quickly and how far Brain had spread (and how mad the people who had illegally copied their software were at them, for some reason). Today Brain is widely regarded as the first IBM PC virus, so we’re including it on our list despite its benign nature, and the brothers still have the same address and phone number that they sent out 25 years ago.

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