Computer viruses are celebrating their 40th birthday (well, 54th, really)

Published: 2024-02-06
Last Updated: 2024-02-06 20:40:45 UTC
by Jan Kopriva (Version: 1)
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Although "cyber security" is a relatively new field, it already has quite an interesting history, and it is worthwhile to look back at it from time to time. One historical event, that took place in February of the Orwellian year 1984, and which – therefore – celebrates its 40th anniversary this month, was publishing of Federic Cohen’s paper entitled "Computer viruses: Theory and experiments"[1], which is often cited as the origin of the term "computer virus".

While this is not strictly correct, as probably the first recorded use of the word "virus" to refer to a malicious computer program happened all the way back in 1970, when Gregory Benford’s short story entitled "The Scarred Man" was published in May issue of Venture magazine[2,3], and Cohen himself did some previous work on the subject, it is true that Cohen’s article was almost certainly the first published academic work where the term was at least somewhat formally defined, and where a (pseudo)code of a virus was actually included[4].

Cohen defined "virus" as "a program that can 'infect' other programs by modifying them to include a possibly evolved copy of itself", and demonstrated potential function of such a program with the following pseudocode.

Although the term "computer virus" is still commonly (and quite incorrectly, as we may see from the definition mentioned above) used to refer to any malicious code, real computer viruses are mostly a thing of the past. Probably the last actual virus, which managed to spread in the wild, was KBOT, which was analyzed by Kaspersky in February of 2020[5].

So, it seems, that this month, we may celebrate not just the (somewhat disputable) 40th birthday of computer viruses, but also the 4th anniversary of the last of their kind making any real impact on the world.

[1] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0167404887901222
[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjY1KlmroOU&t=1295s
[3] https://web.archive.org/web/20120116080803/http://www.gregorybenford.com/extra/the-scarred-man-returns/
[4] http://all.net/books/virus/index.html
[5] https://securelist.com/kbot-sometimes-they-come-back/96157/

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Jan Kopriva
@jk0pr
Nettles Consulting

Keywords: Virus Malware
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