There are dozens of different types of attacks that cybercriminals can deploy to gain access to a device or system, but none is older or more widespread than the computer virus. One of the first types of malware ever developed, viruses are still in use by cyberattackers targeting the weakest systems — and many find great success that results in damage and distress to millions of users.
Computer viruses are easy to thwart with high-quality antivirus tools. Still, many users might be interested to learn how viruses work and the other ways they can avoid and overcome digital virus infections.
The Origins of Computer Viruses
The very first computer virus, called the Creeper, was developed as a security test in 1971 to determine whether it was possible to create a self-replicating computer program. Thus, once Creeper infected a new host, it did its best to remove itself from its previous host — and the program did no more harm than displaying a simple message stating “I’M THE CREEPER. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN!”
However, the second computer virus, developed in 1974, was created with malicious intentions. Named the Rabbit virus for the speed at which it replicated, this virus would duplicate itself so many times in a single host that system performance would plummet and the machine would crash. Still, Rabbit could only spread to new computers via floppy disks as the internet was not widely available.
When the speed and availability of broadband improved, the modern era of malware truly began. Email and websites were able to spread viruses remarkably swiftly, and various types of malware proliferated online. The first notable malware event of the 21st century was the spread of the LoveLetter Virus, which hid itself in an email attachment pretending to be a mysterious love letter for the recipient. Once downloaded, LoveLetter would overwrite files with copies of itself, making it more difficult to remove and essentially impossible to use the computer.
Computer Viruses in 2023
Today’s malware follows in the footsteps of all three of these originators of modern computer viruses. Malware in 2023 strives to reach as many devices as possible and cause harm to victims, and it often uses social engineering to do so — relying on techniques like phishing or scam emails to attract attention.
The primary difference between the original computer viruses and the viruses of today is the ultimate goal of cybercriminals. In the past, hackers created malicious viruses simply because they could; it was the digital equivalent of hoodlum behavior, which accomplished little besides minor disruption to those with computing machines. In 2023, cybercrime is an industry, and savvy cybercriminals can earn millions of dollars by deploying viruses across the web.
Fortunately, a rival industry of cybersecurity has emerged to combat cybercriminals eager to hijack users’ systems with viruses. Cybersecurity experts have studied viruses from their very beginnings and developed solutions to help keep users safe. None of the original viruses that plagued computer users through the ‘80s, ‘90s and early ‘00s would be successful on modern machines; modern operating systems are too complex and have too many built-in protections against self-replicating code. Only sophisticated malware has a chance to infect modern devices and, even then, only when a user neglects almost all security tools and behaviors.
How to Stay Protected From Computer Viruses
There are several ways for computer users in 2023 to stay safe from computer viruses. First, opting for less popular and more impenetrable operating systems, like Linux or OSX, is a small but impactful way to avoid the majority of viruses. Just as software must be built for specific operating systems, viruses designed to run on Windows will have no effect on a computer with a different OS. Next, and perhaps most important regardless of the operating system, users should have a strong internet security suite installed. Included antivirus tools will constantly monitor a user’s system for signs of infection and automatically quarantine and eliminate dangerous code once detected, thus keeping a user completely safe.
Finally, users in 2023 need to be wary of all links and attachments sent to them through online messaging services, like email or social media. Malware can come from anywhere, even accounts that seem to be companies or individuals, so users should verify the legitimacy of messages through other channels, like phone calls.
Viruses are not as threatening as they once were, but users around the world need to remain vigilant to avoid compromising their devices and systems with simple but effective malware.