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History of Viruses

The term ``computer virus'' was formally defined by Fred Cohen in 1983, while he performed academic experiments on a Digital Equipment Corporation VAX system. Viruses are classified as being one of two types: research or ``in the wild.'' A research virus is one that has been written for research or study purposes and has received almost no distribution to the public. On the other hand, viruses which have been seen with any regularity are termed ``in the wild.'' The first computer viruses were developed in the early 1980s. The first viruses found in the wild were Apple II viruses, such as Elk Cloner, which was reported in 1981 [Den90]. Viruses have now been found on the following platforms:

Note that all viruses found in the wild target personal computers. As of today, the overwhelming number of virus strains are IBM PC viruses. However, as of August 1989, the number of PC, Atari ST, Amiga, and Macintosh viruses were almost identical (21, 22, 18, and 12 respectively [Den90]). Academic studies have shown that viruses are possible for multi-tasking systems, but they have not yet appeared. This point will be discussed later.

Viruses have ``evolved'' over the years due to efforts by their authors to make the code more difficult to detect, disassemble, and eradicate. This evolution has been especially apparent in the IBM PC viruses; since there are more distinct viruses known for the DOS operating system than any other.

The first IBM-PC virus appeared in 1986 [Den90]; this was the Brain virus. Brain was a boot sector virus and remained resident. In 1987, Brain was followed by Alameda (Yale), Cascade, Jerusalem, Lehigh, and Miami (South African Friday the 13th). These viruses expanded the target executables to include COM and EXE files. Cascade was encrypted to deter disassembly and detection. Variable encryption appeared in 1989 with the 1260 virus. Stealth viruses, which employ various techniques to avoid detection, also first appeared in 1989, such as Zero Bug, Dark Avenger and Frodo (4096 or 4K). In 1990, self-modifying viruses, such as Whale were introduced. The year 1991 brought the GP1 virus, which is ``network-sensitive'' and attempts to steal Novell NetWare passwords. Since their inception, viruses have become increasingly complex.

Examples from the IBM-PC family of viruses indicate that the most commonly detected viruses vary according to continent, but Stoned, Brain, Cascade, and members of the Jerusalem family, have spread widely and continue to appear. This implies that highly survivable viruses tend to be benign, replicate many times before activation, or are somewhat innovative, utilizing some technique never used before in a virus.

Personal computer viruses exploit the lack of effective access controls in these systems. The viruses modify files and even the operating system itself. These are ``legal'' actions within the context of the operating system. While more stringent controls are in place on multi-tasking, multi-user operating systems, configuration errors, and security holes (security bugs) make viruses on these systems more than theoretically possible.

This leads to the following initial conclusions:

It has been suggested that viruses for multi-user systems are too difficult to write. However, Fred Cohen required only ``8 hours of expert work'' [Hof90] to build a virus that could penetrate a UNIXFooter system. The most complex PC viruses required a great deal more effort.

Yet, if we reject the hypothesis that viruses do not exist on multi-user systems because they are too difficult to write, what reasons could exist? Perhaps the explosion of PC viruses (as opposed to other personal computer systems) can provide a clue. The population of PCs and PC compatibles is by far the largest. Additionally, personal computer users exchange disks frequently. Exchanging disks is not required if the systems are all connected to a network. In this case large numbers of systems may be infected through the use of shared network resources.

One of the primary reasons that viruses have not been observed on multi-user systems is that administrators of these systems are more likely to exchange source code rather than executables. They tend to be more protective of copyrighted materials, so they exchange locally developed or public domain software. It is more convenient to exchange source code, since differences in hardware architecture may preclude exchanging executables.

The advent of remote disk protocols, such as NFS (Network File System) and RFS (Remote File System), have resulted in the creation of many small populations of multi-user systems which freely exchange executables. Even so, there is little exchange of executables between different ``clusters'' of systems.

The following additional conclusions can be made:

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Thu Mar 10 15:32:44 EST 1994