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A quarter century of tech bugs

The first one was a prank. Now, viruses want your wallet.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 26, 2007

In 1982, the only computer virus people had to worry about was something of a poet. Once the mischievous code lodged itself into an Apple II computer, the virus spouted verse:

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"It will get on all your disks/ It will infiltrate your chips/ Yes it's Cloner!" the bardic virus displayed on screens every 50th time the machine started up. "It will stick to you like glue/ It will modify RAM too/ Send in the Cloner!"

If only today's computer viruses were so benign.

Twenty-five years later, the worms, bots, and other "malware" that sneak onto computers are far more than mere annoyances. They swindle users, overwhelm networks, and cause billions of dollars in damage each year.

Such a future was unimaginable to Richard Skrenta when he programmed that first virus back in 1982. He was 15 at the time. Calling his code the "Elk Cloner" –­ after the elk head trophy that hung in his father's study –­ the ninth-grader released the program as a practical joke.

The code infected operating systems, then spread to floppy disks, then contaminated other operating systems, and copied itself to other floppies.

It infected his friend's computers, as intended. But before long, the poem popped up on his math teacher's computer, and later on the computers of complete strangers.

"I realized that it would spread, but my imagination didn't picture it spreading all around the world," says Mr. Skrenta, who last month stepped down as CEO of the social networking site to pursue other start-ups. He seems to get a kick out of reporters still asking questions about his little prank 25 years later.

"What you have to remember is that there were no laws against this kind of thing," he says. "The idea of the evil hacker didn't even exist at the time."

But as more programmers thought up wicked malware, media attention followed.

There was the infamous "Morris worm" that wiggled through the nascent Internet in 1988. Programmed by a Cornell University student, the worm clogged systems across the country and cost researchers up to $10 million in lost time as they weeded out the self-replicating code.

Then came the "Michelangelo virus," a ticking-bomb program that threatened to erase thousands of hard drives simultaneously on March 6, 1992. Like the Y2K bug that followed, however, Michelangelo scared more people than it hurt.

These early codes and the scores that came in between had a much different goal than today's crop of malware. They were designed to vandalize, earn bragging rights, and tinker with new technology. It was a time of hobbyists, says Zulfikar Ramzan, a senior principal researcher at the computer security firm Symantec in Cupertino, Calif.

But around 2001, the trend shifted. Amateur-made viruses gave way to a new breed – one that was more evolved, relied on stealth, and targeted your wallet.

New schemes, new virus vocabulary

So what changed? For one, a growing number of Americans started to use the Internet for banking, shopping, and advertising. Once real money started flying through cyberspace, hackers began to devise nefarious business plans.

"It used to be that most of the new malware we discovered appeared during nights and weekends – when hobbyists would have time to work on them," Mr. Ramzan says. "Nowadays, the virus writers are more active during office hours."