Catch Me if You Can

Go look up computer virus in google images, it’s hilarious.

You may or may not be surprised to know that viruses (and their cousins, including worms, Trojans, and malware) have existed for about as long as the internet itself. In this article by Gregory Benford, one of the first scientists to work with theĀ Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANet), Benford explains how the first virus came to be, and some of the consequences of its creation.

As Benford tells us, the very first computer virus was largely harmless but very, very annoying. It simply used a chain reaction to add bad/redundant/superfluous code to certain programs and sap the processing power on computers infected with the virus. Benford, who had created the virus himself, notified the appropriate authorities at the main ARPANet server and warned them of the potential for viruses to do actual damage to computers on the network. Nonetheless, new viruses were created, sparking an entire market for virus protection.

As technology and programming have become more and more advanced, more malicious bugs have been created to take out computing systems. Benford focuses on the famous (or perhaps infamous) worm called Stuxnet, which was used to infect and shut down an Iranian nuclear power plant in 2010. The worm used a false certificate to gain access to all computers on a network using Windows. Then it found its way into a program called Siemens Step7, which programmed many of the industrial processes of the plant. Next, it compromised the system that received input from those industrial processes and subsequently dictated changes to the output. By gaining access to the input, the creators of the worm could see exactly what processes were running in the plant and could change the output so that– essentially– the plant blew up. The worm could then replicate and spread to other computers on the network.

Benford warns in his conclusion that Stuxnet is proof that digital viruses can be used to affect the analog world. As our society becomes increasingly “connected” to computing systems, we must be vigilant and protect our networks from such viruses. The damage that potent viruses can do could be catastrophic.

If you’re interested in the Stuxnet virus and its effects, I’d recommend this article (complete with pictures!)

And here is a timeline of how viruses have evolved over time, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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