Archive: Computer Collector Newsletter / Technology Rewind, Jan. 2004 - March 2006
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Viruses gets vintage
by Evan Koblentz
Sing along with us!
"Unhappy birthday to you, Unhappy birthday to you, Unhappy 20th birthday PC boot sector viruses, Unhappy birthday to you. (And don't have more!)"
It had to happen eventually: the computer virus became vintage. To be specific, Brain.A wasn't the first computer virus, but 20 years ago this month it became the first PC boot sector virus, propagating itself through copies of 5.25-inch floppy disks. Today there are more than 150,000 viruses in the wild, according to security firm F-Secure. Meanwhile, Brain inspired John McAfee to assign a virus-scanning project to programmer J.J. Webb, and an industry was born.
There is a decent article at News.com (http://tinyurl.com/azghe) although it overlooks earlier viruses like Elk for the Apple II (see http://www.skrenta.com and http://www.securityfocus.com/infocus/1286 for the story directly from Elk author Rich Skrenta.) Meanwhile, our friend Bruce Damer over at the Digibarn recently conducted an Internet radio interview with J.J. Webb, who programmed the (first?) virus scanner software. I just missed meeting J.J. by an hour during my VCF 8.0 excursion last fall, but Bruce's interview is extensive. Besides learning about his work for John McAfee, you get a sense of Webb the person (and pioneering Internet poet) as well.
So it's time for CCN readers to speak up: other than Elk on the Apple II, what were your first experiences as victims of computer viruses? Mine didn't happen until relatively late in the game, May 1996, when I turned in an independent study project on AutoCAD during my final semester of college. The next week I graduated and as I walked through the commencement line, the professor yelled out to me "your disk gave me a virus!" Luckily he didn't hold that against my grade. (By the way, my anti-virus software of choice is Alwil Software's Avast 4.6. It is much more effective and easier to use than the major players, and the home version is free for Linux and Windows.)