History of computer viruses: Creeper and Reaper.
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Creeper and Reaper, the First Virus and First Antivirus in History
Computer archaeology is peculiar in that it contains small stories that offer great references. We have all heard of some of them.
Computer science is a young technique, but it has evolved so much and so quickly that it has developed a whole world of small historical events, almost mythological, which ended up giving rise to very widespread phenomena that affect, nowadays, our daily life.
Who doesn’t know about computer viruses? Who hasn’t suffered from one of them? Malware is an unpleasant reality that can be encountered by any user of computer devices; sometimes a simple annoying curiosity, other times a real problem, the truth is that the virus, Trojans, spyware, malicious software in short, is a problem that all IT users must deal with at any given time.
But where did this annoying and ill-intentioned software come from? Who came up with the idea of annoying other people’s computers? In this article we will know the origins of the idea, and even the first attempt to stop viruses, through the first antivirus in history.
The history of Creeper and Reaper
“I’m the Creeper: catch me if you can.”
It was 1971, and this message began to appear before the astonished eyes of the few users who handled the computers that were part of ARPANET (the original network that, with the passage of time, would give rise to the Internet). What did that enigmatic phrase mean?
This was the business card of Creeper, the first computer virus in history, developed by Bob Thomas, a programmer at BBN Technologies.
Although his message was disconcerting, Thomas’s intention was not harmful. His objective was to create a program to confirm, in practice, whether this could be moved between computers. And he achieved that.
However, Creeper was totally harmless, and had nothing to do with the harmful viruses that developed years later. After “infecting a computer”, Creeper would display its message, start printing a file and, before the printing was finished, jump to the next computer across the network, disappearing from the first.
Although its mechanism may seem very simple, it is important to bear in mind that it was the first time that software capable of being automatically transmitted from one computer to another was created. This led not only to the practical confirmation of the ideas already enunciated by John von Neumann in the 1940s, but also to the creation of his nemesis, the first anti-virus in history: Reaper.
Reaper was clearly an answer to Creeper. Just pay attention to its name; while Creeper means “creeper”, Reaper means “pruner”. Now it all makes sense.
There’s no reliable record of who developed Reaper. Some versions claim that it was Bob Thomas himself, while others claim that it was the work of Ray Tomlinson, the famous creator of e-mail.
The truth is that Reaper was very effective in its purpose: as soon as it detected Creeper’s attack, it removed it from the system, preventing it from spreading to other computers.
Some would question Creeper’s “viral” character, as it did not multiply, but travelled from one computer to another. In fact, both the concept of virus and the concept of antivirus did not exist at that time (dating back to the 1980s). However, for those who are not convinced that Creeper was really the first virus, we could speak of the first virus in history, which was also malicious: Rabbit.
Rabbit and the first malicious viruses
Rabbit arrived very shortly after Creeper, in particular after a year, in 1972. The main difference is that Rabbit reproduced itself on the infected computer, until it invaded the system and caused it to crash.
Years later, some of its successors arrived, such as Elk Cloner, in 1981, which affected the Apple II, and was transmitted through the operating system’s boot diskettes, or BRAIN, the first PC virus, developed in 1986.
The history of BRAIN is interesting, and deserves a small excerpt. BRAIN was one of the first mass spread viruses (it infected some 20,000 computers at the time, which is no small figure) and was transmitted through the illegal copies of MS-DOS, in order to control them and prevent their spread. Once inside the system, it would send a message to the user warning them of the infection and providing contact details in order to provide a solution.
The truth is that this small history of viruses and antivirus serves to highlight a fact that we live every day: in the world of computers it is not easy to know what small event could end up becoming a global phenomenon. The concept developed in an anecdotal and harmless experiment, such as Creeper, ended up perverting itself to the point of giving rise to a problem that affects anyone, and has even generated the creation of millionaire companies, such as antivirus manufacturers, whose main activity consists, precisely, in putting an end to the descendants of the small creeper.
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