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Even if you’re not well-versed in technology, the term “computer viruses” likely rings a bell. But have you ever wondered about the origins of these digital predators? The historical depth of computer viruses is fascinating, dating back to when computing was in its infancy. 

In this article, we’ll take a trip down a digital memory lane to uncover the beginnings of the age of computer viruses, exploring how far they’ve evolved since then.

Before all that, though, let’s do a quick rain check.

What are Computer Viruses?

A computer virus is malicious software designed to infiltrate your computer, causing system damage, data theft, or software disruption. Like biological viruses, computer viruses reproduce and require a host to propagate the infection. This host often takes the form of a program or file that users unwittingly execute, leading to the spread of the virus.

What are Computer Viruses?

Computer viruses emerged five decades ago and have grown in infamy ever since.

What was the First Computer Virus?

The first computer virus ever designed was the Creeper. The Creeper was developed by Bob Thomas, an early computer programmer and researcher, in 1971.

Bob Thomas engineered the Creeper in a controlled environment to validate the feasibility of crafting a self-replicating program. 

The hallmark feature of viruses lies in their ability to self-replicate, making Creeper a pioneering illustration of this concept.

Related: The First Computer Virus In The Philippines

Proliferation of Computer Viruses

As computing technology advanced, so did the sophistication and prevalence of computer viruses. What began as experimental code with limited capabilities gradually became a significant threat to worldwide digital systems.

The Elk Cloner

Although the Creeper is the first computer virus in history, the Elk Cloner is the first virus that can be attributed to malicious code. The Elk Cloner marked the first instance where a virus was discovered outside a controlled environment. It came just a decade after the successful engineering of the Creeper in 19871.

Rich Skrenta, a 15-year-old high school student, created the Elk Cloner. He developed it on an Apple Series computer in 1982 when computers just started hitting the consumer market. Functioning as a boot sector virus, Elk Cloner inserts a copy of itself into a computer’s memory storage when an infected floppy disk is inserted. This mechanism operates without the user’s consent for replication. 

Although Skrenta initially intended to play a prank by distributing the virus among friends, it quickly outgrew this constraint, slipping out of Skrenta’s control. While Elk Cloner wasn’t a large-scale virus and didn’t inflict any harm on the affected devices, it is the first sighting of a computer virus operating outside controlled research settings.

The Brain

This is another computer virus many consider one of the earliest. The Brain emerged just a few years after the Elk brothers and was the brainchild of two Pakistani brothers, Basit, and Amjad Farooq Alvi. Bast and Amjad developed the Brain to prevent unauthorized duplication of their software.

Like Elk Cloner, Brain propagated through floppy disks as its infection vector. Much like its predecessor, Brain also slipped from the grasp of its creators’ control. Although Brain didn’t pose a significant threat, the virus, like its predecessors, laid the groundwork for the ecosystem of computer viruses and digital countermeasures.

Evolution of Computer Viruses — Changing Types and Techniques

Since the first experimental self-replicated viruses were engineered,  technology has progressed, and so did the diversity of computer viruses. Hackers found innovative ways to exploit software vulnerabilities, from boot sector infectors to macro viruses embedded in documents. 

Worms emerged as a subset of viruses that could spread autonomously, exploiting security flaws to propagate themselves. Polymorphic and metamorphic viruses used advanced techniques to evade detection by altering their code.

Notable Computer Viruses Outbreak

In the five-decade history of computer viruses, several notorious outbreaks have significantly impacted the digital landscape. 

Let’s quickly review the most impactful breakouts.

Morris Worm (1988)

The Morris Worm, created by Robert Tappan Morris, marked one of the earliest instances of a widespread computer virus. Designed as an experiment, the worm exploited vulnerabilities in Unix systems, spreading rapidly and causing system crashes. While Morris intended for the worm to gauge the size of the internet, its unintended consequences led to infected computers crashing and overloading networks.

Melissa (1999)

The Melissa virus was created by David L. Smith in 1999. The virus leveraged social engineering tactics through infected email attachments. In record time, the virus spread to thousands of computers, significantly impacting email services(Microsoft Outlook servers) and causing monetary losses due to disrupted business operations. According to the FBI, the Melissa virus caused monetary damage upwards of $80 million. Melissa demonstrated how human behavior and malicious code could lead to rapid and widespread infections.


The “ILOVEYOU” virus, also known as the Love Bug or Love Letter worm, was a computer worm that spread via email in May 2000. It was one of the most destructive examples of a mass-mailing worm, causing widespread damage by overwriting files and spreading itself to others in the user’s address book. 
The virus originated in the Philippines and quickly spread globally, causing significant disruption and financial losses to the tune of about $15 billion.

Mydoom Virus (2004)

The Mydoom virus is considered by many as the deadliest virus ever deployed on the internet. The virus, also known as W32.MyDoom@mm, Novarg, Shimgapi, and Mimail.R caused widespread chaos by infecting around half a million computers globally. It was first sighted in January 2004 and quickly spread through malicious email attachments in a month-long campaign, causing roughly $38 billion in damage.

During the early 2000s, cybersecurity measures were less advanced, making it easier for Mydoom to propagate and turn infected computers into controllable zombie devices. These zombies were then harnessed and controlled as nodes for Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks by malicious actors.

WannaCry (2017)

The WannaCry virus, also known as WannaCrypt or WannaCryptor, is ransomware that emerged in May 2017. It targeted Microsoft Windows operating systems by exploiting a vulnerability in the Windows Server Message Block (SMB) protocol. The virus rapidly spread across the globe, infecting over 230,000 computers in over 150 countries within days. WannaCry encrypted the files on the infected computers and demanded a ransom in Bitcoin in exchange for a decryption key that would unlock the files.

Computer Viruses and Cyber Security Today

In today’s digital landscape, viruses no longer stand alone in posing threats to cybersecurity. The digital world of malicious software has expanded to encompass various other forms of malware. Unlike viruses, malware entities lack the inherent ability to self-replicate. That said, they are as just as malicious as viruses. Ransomware, spyware, and Trojans have emerged as the bad guy’s favorites. Notably, ransomware attacks have coerced companies into paying exorbitant ransoms, often in the millions, to recover stolen or encrypted data. It’s worth noting that viruses fall under the broader category of malware.

Viruses are relatively basic in structure. They’re simple malicious code that usually follows a similar pattern. They need a host program to spread, unlike many other malware types. This makes the latter especially more dangerous. Due to the rise of different malware, viruses have become less prominent. This change is also due to better antivirus software. Viruses are easily detected and avoided with modern antivirus software, lowering their success rate.

In contrast, some malware is designed to evade detection, making them more effective for cybercriminals. However, this doesn’t imply that viruses are now outdated. They still retain substantial potential to cause disruptions for unsuspecting victims. The Mydoom virus, for instance, was reportedly involved in a phishing campaign as recently as 2019.

That said, most major virus attacks occurred in the early 2000s. Since then, other types of malware have become more prevalent.

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