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Sick Machines?

When malicious code takes over a PC, why do we call this a virus? Do we personalize our personal computers to the point where we can consider a machine to be sick? The answer is that what we call a virus really does mimic the biological process our bodies go through when a virus is introduced and gums up the works.

The history of the term "computer virus" dates back to 1949, when a pioneer in the field of computers, John von Neumann, published a paper called, "Theory and Organization of Complicated Automata," in which he presented his hypothesis that computer programs could replicate themselves. Then, in the 1950's, employees of Bell Labs made von Neumann's theory come alive in the form of a game called "Core Wars. In Core Wars, two computer programmers would set into motion software "bugs" that would fight for control of the computer.

Be Sneaky and Replicate

Two sci-fi books published in the 1970's gave voice to the idea that programs could reproduce themselves. John Brunner's, "Shockwave Rider," and Thomas Ryan's, "Adolescence of P-I," both imagined software that could enter a computer without notice. But it was Fred Cohen, who, in 1983 coined the term we all know and hate: "computer virus." Cohen was a student working on his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Southern California at the time he visualized software that could replicate and then attach itself to other programs as a means of breaching the security of large computer systems. Cohen shared this idea with his thesis advisor, Len Adleman, who pointed out that the process was not unlike that of biological viruses, which draw on the resources of the cells they attack to nurture replication.

In 1986, Cohen presented his thesis which included the first true mathematical definition of the term and is thus considered the father of the computer virus. Cohen's thesis included the idea that the computer virus was, "a program that can infect other programs by modifying them to include a, possibly evolved, version of itself."

At this point in time, the term was still an idea out of grasp of most laymen and therefore not a part of our popular lexicon.

However, in the same year that Cohen presented his thesis, the first reports of major damage resulting from a personal computer virus came to light when two brothers, Basit and Amjad Farooq Alvi, of Lahore, Pakistan set their Pakistani Brain virus in motion. And then, in the final days of 1988, a university student by the name of Robert Tappan Morris, A/K/A rtm, son of one of those Bell Lab employees involved in the creation of the Core War games, unleashed the Morris Worm which wreaked havoc on several thousand computers.

Unlike many human viruses, which have no cure, we are lucky in that there are lots of good anti-virus programs on the market. So beware and take care of your PC's health. Installing an anti-virus program keeps out the "bugs" and can help grant your system long life.

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