Marking 20 years of viral havoc

From Brain to Nyxm.E, viruses have shadowed technology evolution

This month marks a true milestone in computing: 20 years of viruses. The Brain virus, first detected in 1986, was a boot-sector virus that infected only 5.25-inch 360k floppy disks. Unbelievable as it may seem in hindsight, Brain spread around the globe without the aid of the Internet or e-mail.

Step by step, viruses have kept pace with the evolution of technology. Viruses such as Lehigh (the first memory resident virus), Tequila (stealth and polymorphic), and Michelangelo (set to activate on March 6) added new virus “functionality” while spawning a whole new anti-virus software industry.

Boot-sector viruses, which required that a user execute an infected file, began to wane in the mid-1990s. But as the Internet and e-mail gained popularity, so did a new breed -- the macro virus. In 1996, Concept became the most common virus in the world, infecting Word documents on both the PC and the Mac -- the first cross-platform virus. Concept also added social engineering to the viral soup, tempting users to open files with subject lines that ranged from friendly to salacious.

Throughout the 1990s, virus infections were still measured in weeks and months. That all changed on Friday, March 26, 1999 when the term “Zero-day vulnerability” was coined to describe the release and rapid infection of the Melissa virus. Like Concept, Melissa was a macro virus -- but it was the first to automatically send itself, or some variation, to users listed in the Outlook address book. Melissa is credited with spreading faster than any other virus before, infecting by some estimates hundreds of thousands of computers in a matter of hours.

The next generation of virus attacks focused on servers and infrastructure. CodeRed took advantage of a security vulnerability in Microsoft IIS to spread itself around the world. Then came Nimda, Slammer, and more recently Sober worms, all of which exploited users’ e-mail, executables, network shares, or Web server vulnerabilities. All these worms propagate themselves without end-user assistance.

The latest on the viral hit parade is Nyxm.E, detected in the wild and considered a moderate to serious risk. A mass mailing worm, Nyxm.E comes with a destructive payload set to execute every third day of the month. The major anti-virus companies have signatures to detect Nyxm.E, but nonetheless, it’s a good idea to avoid e-mails that promise “Hot Movie” or “The Best Video Clip Ever.”

Computers no longer have a monopoly on viruses. PDAs, cell phones, and MP3 players are all at risk, as are any future devices plugged into the network. After 20 years, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that for every technology advance, there’s a small cadre of miscreants waiting to show the world how much havoc they can wreak.