The Evolution Of Malware

Like the poor in the famous Biblical verse, malware will always be with us. Here’s a 33-year history from Elk Cloner to Cryptolocker. What will be next?

Fred Touchette, Manager of Security Research

October 2, 2015

4 Min Read

Only six years after the first personal computer was introduced in 1975, the world was introduced to its first computer virus. Here’s a look back at the inception of malware, how it has evolved and what we’ve learned.

The Beginning
In 1982, Elk Cloner was written to infect Apple LLC’s operating system. Attached to a game, it infected the Apple’s boot sector and spread by “cloning” itself to new disks introduced to the system. Once the virus was triggered, it would display a poem explaining how Elk Cloner was copying itself throughout the victim’s machine and that it wouldn’t be easy to reverse its effects.

The 80s: Malware Goes Malicious
A year after the first personal malware was found “in the wild,” the term “computer virus” was coined to refer to a malicious program written to destroy data or to corrupt systems. As time moved on, the computer virus branched off into many different categories, each meant to define how it acted. 

The 90s: Internet Usage Drives Malware Havoc & AV Software
Malware learned the art of evasion and as a result, antivirus software became a growing business. By the end of the 1990s, the Internet was circling the globe.  In fact, 50 percent of all U.S. homes had computers and Internet access, ultimately facilitating the explosion of malware as it is known today.

The 2000s: Aggressive Social Engineering & Criminals Pay the Price
In the early 2000s, more aggressive social engineering strategies came into play. The “I Love You” worm, aka “Love Letter,” was considered the most damaging worm of its time, infecting millions of computers worldwide merely 15 minutes after its release.

The issue of computer infection became so paramount that the world started to see authorities making arrests for computer crimes. In 2001, Jan de Wit was arrested after he authored the worm known as the Anna Kournikova worm that spread quickly by tricking recipients into believing that the email they had just received contained a photo of Anna Kournikova.

It was in 2003 when the SQL Slammer made its debut that the Internet really stood up and took notice of the now ever-present computer virus. 

Mid-2000s: Malware is Widespread
By the mid-2000s, there were more than a million known computer worms circulating around the Internet. Email spam was becoming big business as malware authors stood to make serious cash by blasting out unsolicited email, spam, and getting just a percentage of users to buy their goods or click on links. 

The first malware specifically written for Mac OSX also entered the scene during this time, causing Mac users to re-evaluate their “Macs don’t get viruses” mindset. Other consumer products also became a risk—digital picture frames and hard drives from China began to hit store shelves with malware pre-installed on them.

Late 2000s - 2010: Conficker’s Debut & State-Sponsored Attacks
The Conficker worm made its debut in November 2008, quickly infecting more than 15 million machines worldwide. Researchers theorized that not only was Conficker an experiment to test out new functionalities and spreading capabilities, but that it was also a state-sponsored experiment.

The idea of governments and militaries using malware as a new weapon was at first only a theory. This changed with Stuxnet in 2010 (and spin-offs later that year including Duqu and Flame). The world had proof that state-sponsored attacks were a reality.

2013: Say Hello to Ransomware
Cryptolocker and its spinoffs, CryptoWall and CryptoDefense, (all ransomware) made their first appearances around September 2013. Cryptolocker employed strong encryption to scramble nearly every file on its targets, making them impossible to recover without the unique, private key used to encrypt them. Even if the Cryptolocker infection was successfully removed, the files would remain encrypted and unusable. This instantly made many of its victims aware of the importance of a reliable backup strategy.

Preparing for the Future
While technology and personal habits mature with each new cyberattack, the threats lurking around the corner do the same at a seemingly uneven pace. Because we can’t predict exactly what’s ahead, here is a reminder of the best practices that will keep users and systems safe in the face of ever-changing and always evolving malware:

  • Remain vigilant; don’t let your security practice become complacent

  • Add layered security measures

  • Only use trusted sites

  • Have a reliable backup strategy 

  • Review financial accounts regularly for suspicious activity. Sometimes a victim won’t realize they have been attacked. Catching breaches early helps stop the attack, recuperate damages, and possibly even catch the attacker.

About the Author(s)

Fred Touchette

Manager of Security Research

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