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Friday, December 14, 2012

The high school student who unleashed the very first computer virus

It wouldn't be at all surprising if trillions of dollars have been spent in the name of combating computer viruses, to say nothing of the countless hours of lost productivity and technical havoc that those malevolent digital prions have wrought.

And it all started thirty years ago this year, with a high school student's innocent practical joke.
Rich Skrenta in 1989:
Blame HIM for having to buy all that
anti-virus software.

The Register has a fascinating in-depth interview with Rich Skrenta: the creator of Elk Cloner: now recognized as the first-ever computer virus. Skrenta, then fifteen years old in 1982, got a little more interested in the Apple II than might have been healthy for anyone, but it started benignly enough: writing his own text-based adventures and learning advanced coding. Then inspired by a string of "hysterically funny" pranks with disks he would loan to friends, he came up with Elk Cloner. It was his attempt to alter a floppy disk's contents without actually touching it. Elk Cloner would run in the background of the Apple II and "hop" to floppy after floppy...

It soon got beyond Skrenta's control.
The boot sector virus was written for Apple II systems, the dominant home computers of the time, and infected floppy discs.

If an Apple II booted from an infected floppy disk, Elk Cloner became resident in the computer’s memory. Uninfected discs inserted into the same computer were given a dose of the malware just as soon as a user keyed in the command catalog for a list of files.

Infected computers would display a short poem, also written by Skrenta, on every fiftieth boot from an infected disk:

Elk Cloner: The program with a personality
It will get on all your disks It will infiltrate your chips Yes it's Cloner!
It will stick to you like glue It will modify ram too Send in the Cloner!

Elk Cloner, which played other, more subtle tricks every five boots, caused no real harm but managed to spread widely. Computer viruses had been created before, but Skrenta’s prank app was the first to spread in the wild, outside the computer system or network on which it was created.

It's hard not to admire the young Skrenta's technical prowess, in a perverse sort of fashion. He inadvertently became forever a part of technological history, after all!

Mash down here for the full article.