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What were the world’s most important computer viruses? (Part 1)

We spend a lot of time talking about how to avoid malware on this blog, but not much time discussing the infections themselves. That’s why – in a macabre twist – we’re going to discuss some of the most important computer viruses in history.

Modern computers are now immune to the infections listed below, but the industry still struggles against some of the techniques these infections introduced.

Morris Worm (1988)

“Morris” is widely considered the first “worm” type of malware – a program designed to replicate itself and spread to other systems. It was certainly the first worm to get major mainstream attention, as it infected a massive 10% of the internet. Fortunately, however, that was just 60,000 computers in 1988.

The worm was originally designed to gauge the size of the internet, but because of a flaw in the coding, Morris could install itself multiple times on one computer and slow it to a halt.

The author of the malware, Robert Tappan Morris, was given 400 hours of community service and a fine of $10,000.

Melissa (1999)

“Melissa” was the first notable example of a computer virus using adult content to sell itself. Much like malware today that uses “Justin Bieber Naked” to attract attention, the original Melissa virus was stored in a salacious word document containing a list of 80 passwords to adult websites.

Although the malware caused lots of problems, the virus itself didn’t cause any damage to individual systems. When opened, the virus would simply email itself to 50 of your email contacts.

However, because the virus became so popular (people didn’t worry opening random emails back then), the number of infections grew rapidly, and for each new infection, 50 new emails were sent.

The result was that while individual computers continued to operate as normal, the entire internet slowed down under the weight of the traffic. It got so bad that both Microsoft and Intel had to switch off their email services.

The Klez Virus (2001)

The Klez virus introduced two malware techniques that we’re still dealing with today. One of these innovations was particularly troublesome: it disabled any anti-virus software already installed on the computer.

This made it impossible for existing anti-virus software to detect the virus, and extremely difficult for anti-virus companies to fight the infection. This is because anti-virus companies – even to this day – use the internet to update their software and to improve their ability to detect the latest threats. If the software was already disabled, however, it couldn’t pull in the latest updates – including the antidote to the Klez virus.

Klez was also the first recorded incident of a virus e-mailing itself to your friends, while also pretending that the email was from another one of your friends. This made it difficult for people to track whose computer had the virus and was sending out emails, because everyone thought it was coming from a different person. Ouch.

As with all of the viruses listed here, the Klez virus only affected computers running Windows operating systems, and also required a copy of Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express to be installed.

Code Red (2001) and 2 Worms

Named after the drink the security researchers who discovered it were sipping on at the time, the Code Red worm was the first widespread infection to take control of computer systems. This is process is now known as “creating a botnet”, an issue that is one of the main reasons for websites to go offline in 2013.

While only computers running Windows 2000 were infected, at its peak, over 359,000 computers were under its control. In the end, the impact of the Code Red worm was so dramatic that, like a good movie, someone decided to sequel it.

Stuxnet  (2012)

Jumping back to the future, Stuxnet is one of the two most recent examples of exceptionally deadly computer malware.

Widely considered to have been developed by a combination of the US and Israeli governments, it was designed specifically to cripple Iran’s nuclear reactors. To reach the reactors, however, Stuxnet had to infect many Windows computer systems. It essentially used the entire internet as a passport to reach itsfinal destination – Siemens systems at the Iranian nuclear plant.

Coming up: part 2

We’ve introduced worms, self-replication, sex, anti-anti-viruses, botnets and attacks on nuclear reactors – and we’re only halfway through our guide to the world’s most important malware. Come back in a few days for our concluding part, which includes betrayal, battering storms and bad proposals.

Before then, however, you should really check that your anti-virus is up-to-date.

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