The Computer Virus Turns 25?

Not quite so fast for 'happy birthday'; malware is even older


Though it's subject to debate to whether it was truly the first computer virus, reports perpetuated by sites like PCAdvisor, TWiT and VNUnet are claiming that this is the 25th anniversary of the computer virus.

And the originator? That title has gone to "Elk Cloner", a pretty mild virus that appeared in 1982, affecting Apple II computers (further dispelling the myth that only Windows machines are susceptible to viruses).

The dreadful payload of the Elk Cloner virus (supposedly created by a teenager) moved between Apple II's via floppy disks, but it wasn't until a year later (1983) that the term computer virus was first used, according to a history published on Viruslist.com. Maybe that's because the Elk Cloner was little more than an annoyance, and other than loading bad rhymes ("YES, IT'S CLONER/IT WILL STICK TO YOU LIKE GLUE/IT WILL MODIFY RAM, TOO"), the "Cloner" was relatively inconsequential.

Of course, had viruses remained at the level of the Elk Cloner (confined to infected floppies), we'd have little worry about opening unsolicited email "greeting cards".

And while teenage virus-writers everywhere may be thrilled to have one of their own recognized as the virus inventor, it seems that many news sites and security editors (including our friends over at CSO magazine, which also published this story) have been duped into thinking the virus is only 25 years old. But if you look back at Viruslist.com's impressive history of malware, it's clear that Elk Cloner was far from the first virus, which is basically anything that self-replicates and can cause injury.

Long-time security folks may have heard of previous "viruses" that are mentioned on the website, including ones that date back to the "early '70s" and ARPANet (the government and university data network that was the precursor to today's Internet). In 1974, Viruslist.com reports there was a "Rabbit" virus (named, of course, for its ability to reproduce quickly).

So despite the fact that it makes a nice security headline for a slow news week, we have to say that the virus is much older, and that the attempts to tear down networks and computers with self-replicating malware are almost as old as the computer itself.

And I'm not going to even get into the age of the computer itself, which some say dates back to Charles Babbage in the 1840s, but which some would credit to the Atanasoff-Berry Computer from 1937 or ENIAC in the early 1940s, or even EDSAC in 1949. That's a whole other can of computer worms.