Previously, children were taught to wash their hands before eating and not to trust strangers, now — not to download dubious programs from the Internet and not to open spam. Digital hygiene in the modern world is even more important than a locked door at night. To commit a cybercrime, you do not need to get into the house, it is enough to get into a smartphone. Naked Science investigates what malware is and how to protect yourself from it.
The origin of the threat: the history of computer viruses
In addition to the flu or coronavirus, there is another type of virus that worries humanity: they live in our computers. Like biological analogues, computer viruses multiply themselves and spread, “infecting” the object of influence. Their impact may be insignificant and annoying (for example, a computer freezes a little or access to the mailbox is stolen), or it may be completely destructive. It’s one thing to disable a user’s private device, another to disable a country’s nuclear program. At the household level, in general, all malicious software is often called viruses, but from a professional point of view, viruses themselves are only a small part of modern malware. Nevertheless, it was with them that the history of cyber attacks began.
The theoretical foundations for the construction of computer viruses were laid back in the 40-50s of the XX century, when John von Neumann wrote a paper on self-reproducing automata, and S. Penrose (L. S. Penrose) and F. J. Stahl (F. G. Stahl) described models of structures capable of reproduction, mutation and capture. Their models were almost immediately implemented in the form of program code, which in the modern sense, however, was not yet malicious. In the 1950s, Bell Labs employees brought von Neumann’s basic idea to life by creating a game called Core Wars. In it, programmers released “fighters” into the general memory area, launched them simultaneously and competed for control of the computer.
The earliest documented viruses appeared in the early 1970s.
The first of these is often called Creeper Worm, an experimental self—replicating program written by Bob Thomas of BBN Technologies. Creeper gained access to the ARPANET network (the forerunner of the Internet) and copied himself to remote systems, where he showed a message: “I’m a creeper, catch me if you can!” Later, Ray Tomlinson wrote a REAPER program in response, which also moved around the Network and, detecting CREEPER, “caught” it, stopping execution. Tomlinson thereby developed a prototype of what would later be called an antivirus.
In 1983, Fred Cohen introduced the familiar term “computer virus” into scientific circulation. He defined it this way: “A program that can infect other programs by modifying them to include a possibly developed version of itself.” In the same year, the University of Southern California (USA) proposed a project to create a self-propagating program. Formally, it is the ability to self—produce that is the main property of viruses.
The spread of computer attacks began around the 1970s, when incidents occurred with the companies National CSS, AT &T and Los Alamos National Laboratory. In the case of AT&T, the hacker, for example, changed the internal clock responsible for setting tariffs, so that users of this network received night discounts even during the daytime. The first antivirus tools appeared — NOD, McAfee. Data security was not particularly involved at that time, the protection mechanisms were used the most superficial, since the attacks were, from a technical point of view, not too advanced.
Malware was often distributed completely offline via floppy disks transferred from computer to computer by human hands. By the mid-1970s, everyone already understood that when designing computer systems, it was worth paying special attention to ensuring security.
In 1983, the film “War Games” was released, where a rogue program captured nuclear missile systems. Society perceived such a threat quite nervously. The US House of Representatives was forced to hold special hearings on computer hacking. Ken Thompson, in a lecture for the Turing Prize, for the first time described the scenario of infecting the system using a program that he called a “Trojan horse”. After an increasing number of attacks on government and corporate computers, the US Congress passed the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in 1986 — hacking computer systems began to be considered a crime.
As computer networks developed, malware authors constantly improved their code and took advantage of the ubiquity of the Internet. From 2000 to 2010, the number of malicious programs increased significantly both in terms of the number and speed of their distribution. In 2016, the Locky virus infected several million computers in Europe with an average speed of more than five thousand devices per hour. In 2018, Thanatos became the first ransomware program to start accepting bitcoin payments. Today, according to Anti-Phishing Workgroup, malware infects at least a third of computers in the world. Cybersecurity Ventures reports that by 2021, losses from cybercrimes, including malware, amounted to six trillion dollars a year.