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A Short History of Computer Viruses and Attacks

1979: Engineers at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center discover the computer "worm," a short program that scours a network for idle processors. Designed to provide more efficient computer use, the worm is the ancestor of modern worms -- destructive computer viruses that alter or erase data on computers, often leaving files irretrievably corrupted.

1983: The FBI busts the "414s," a group of young hackers who break into several U.S. government networks, in some cases using only an Apple II+ computer and a modem.

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1983: University of Southern California doctoral candidate Fred Cohen coins the term "computer virus" to describe a computer program that can "affect other computer programs by modifying them in such a way as to include a (possibly evolved) copy of itself." Anti-virus makers later capitalize on Cohen's research on virus defense techniques.

1984: In his novel, "Neuromancer," author William Gibson popularizes the term "cyberspace," a word he used to describe the network of computers through which the characters in his futuristic novels travel.

1986: One of the first PC viruses ever created, "The Brain," is released by programmers in Pakistan.

1988: Twenty-three-year-old programmer Robert Morris unleashes a worm that invades ARPANET computers. The small program disables roughly 6,000 computers on the network by flooding their memory banks with copies of itself. Morris confesses to creating the worm out of boredom. He is fined $10,000 and sentenced to three years' probation.

1991: Programmer Philip Zimmerman releases "Pretty Good Privacy" (PGP), a free, powerful data-encryption tool. The U.S. government begins a three-year criminal investigation on Zimmerman, alleging he broke U.S. encryption laws after his program spread rapidly around the globe. The government later drops the charges.

1991: Symantec releases the Norton Anti-Virus software.

1994: Inexperienced e-mail users dutifully forward an e-mail warning people not to open any message with the phrase "Good Times" in the subject line. The missive, which warns of a virus with the power to erase a recipient's hard drive, demonstrates the self-replicating power of e-mail virus hoaxes that continue to circulate in different forms today.

1995: Microsoft Corp. releases Windows 95. Anti-virus companies worry that the operating system will be resistant to viruses. Later in the year, however, evolved "macro" viruses appear that are able to corrupt the new Windows operating system.


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