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Fun Fact Friday: The First "Wild" Computer Virus

September 8, 2017

Most of us at one point or another have dealt with viruses on our computers: 40% of households have dealt with a computer virus, with 16 million homes affected by serious viruses in the last two years. As technology has spread, viruses have increased and become more complex. However, computer viruses had innocent and humble beginnings. The first appeared in the 1970s in labs as computer scientists tested the ability for programs to self-replicate. However, the first time a virus was used outside of a controlled lab was not until 1982.

Fifteen-year-old Richard Skrenta was a ninth-grader at Mt. Lebanon Senior High School near Pittsburgh. He was known by his friends as an incurable prankster and they always on guard to his schemes. Skentra, a computer whiz, was known to put little taunting messages by altering the software and games he would swap with his friends. As a result, many of them stopped accepting any disks from him; He had to think of a new way to mess with them. During one cold winter break, Skentra worked furiously on his Apple II computer to create what we now know as a 'boot sector' virus. His creation, known as the "Elk Cloner," was designed that when an infected floppy disk was inserted into the machine, at startup it would infect a computer's memory. From there, the virus would replicate to an uninfected floppy accessible to the computer, which was an easy task as the Apple II had two floppy disk ports. This virus was designed that on the 50th boot up after the virus was placed in the computer's memory, the following message would display:

Elk Cloner: The program with a personality

It will get on all your disks
It will infiltrate your chips
Yes its Cloner!

It will stick to you like glue
It will modify ram too
Send in the Cloner!

Since these disks were frequently passed around his friends, the Cloner quickly spread. Even a decade later, Skentra found out that a sailor using an Apple II computer during the Gulf War got infected with the Elk Cloner. While this virus was harmless and a humorous annoyance, it was the first time a computer virus had spread across home computers. Despite it being a simple prank, it showed the early power and capabilities of computer viruses. Unfortunately, today viruses are not simple pranks but can encrypt or destroy valuable data.

Richard Skentra moved on from his adolescent days of pranking his friends, into developing countless computer programs that are still used today and found online new business. Even with his success as a computer programmer, his infamy will always be placed as the one who spread Elk Cloner throughout the world.

Sources: Tech Target: Elk Cloner Definition

NBC News: School prank starts 25 years of security woes


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