Age of innocence
The first computer virus was created in a lab and released without malicious intent. The Creeper, named after a character in Scooby-Doo, was set loose on to the Arpanet by engineer Bob Thomas in 1971 but was quickly neutralized. One of the first internet viruses, the Morris worm, released in 1988, caused more damage, though its creator, Robert Morris, a Cornell student, claimed it was an innocent mistake. He was sentenced to three years’ probation. Morris is now a professor at MIT and the disk containing his worm’s source code is on display at the Boston Museum of Science.
Malware entered a delinquency phase in the 1980s and 1990s as youthful hackers used viruses to cause disruptions without obvious motives. The Elk Cloner virus, spread by Rich Skrenta on to Apple II computers in 1982, was a harmless prank but it created a template for more destructive assaults such as the Jerusalem virus, in 1987, and Michelangelo, in 1991. Melissa, a virus named after a stripper its creator, David Smith, had met in Florida, spread via e-mail in 1999 and cost more than US$80 million to clean up. The Sasser virus, which caused damage estimated at US$18 billion in 2004, was spread by an 18-year-old German hacker, Sven Jaschan, reportedly to create work for his mother’s computer security business.
With greater connectivity in the 1990s, economic crime became big business online and malware was developed to flog us Viagra and pinch our bank details. Last year, 30-year-old Cuban-American Albert Gonzales, aka Soupnazi, a member of the ShadowCrew hacker group, was sentenced to 20 years for the alleged theft of more than 170 million card numbers. A large proportion of the world’s cyber crime can be traced to criminal gangs and small hacker groups in Russia and eastern Europe.
Many believe the new domain of 21st-century warfare is cyberspace, although examples of cyber warfare can be traced back to the cold war. In 1982, stolen software doctored by the CIA caused a massive explosion in a Soviet gas pipeline. Numerous international cyber assaults have been reported in the last decade, involving China, Israel and the US, which set up a major cyber command last year, but the most powerful evidence that we’re entering an age of cyber warfare is Stuxnet, first detected last June. This worm, disseminated on USB sticks, was used to target Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Some suspect US or Israeli government involvement.