Going Viral: The First PC Virus

Before vigilante hackers like Anonymous tamed the internet, two brothers started their own fight against software piracy. Their weapon: the first PC virus.

Twenty-five years ago, students at the University of Delaware began experiencing strange symptoms: temporary memory loss, a lethargic drive, and fits of rage. This wasn't just any old flu -it was the world's first personal computer virus. Known as Brain, the bug destroyed memory, slowed the hard drive, and hid a short copyright message in the boot sector, introducing the world to two soon-to-be hacker celebrities.

In 1986, coders Basit and Amjad Farooq Alvi were just 17 and 24, respectively, running a computer store in Lahore, Pakistan. When they discovered that customers were circulating illegal copies of software they'd written, the brothers decided to retaliate. Brain was their attempt to scare pirates straight, but, as the creators tell it, the virus was never intended to be malicious. In a 2011 interview with F-Secure, a Finnish anti-virus company, the brothers called the bug a "friendly virus," one that "was not made to destroy any data." Why else would they have stamped the virus code with their names, their phone numbers, and the address of their shop?

"The idea was that only if the program were illegally copied would the virus load," Amjad said in a Pakistani TV interview a few years ago. The Alvis also had an ingenious method for keeping track of how far a virus had spread. "[We] had a 'counter' in the program, which could keep track of all copies made and when they were made."



Amjad and Basit Farooq Alvi

The brothers claim they never knew Brain would grow into a monster beyond their control. But a 1988 Time magazine article reveals a more complicated truth: As concerned as they were with piracy of their own software, that didn't stop them from making and selling bootleg copies of other expensive programs, such as Lotus 1-2-3. In fact, the ethics of their computer vigilantism are a little murky. Computer software isn't copyright protected in Pakistan, Basit has argued in interviews, so therefore it's not piracy for people to trade bootleg discs. Under that rationale, the brothers sold clean bootleg copies to Pakistanis -and virus-infected versions to American students and backpackers. When Americans flew home and attempted to copy the programs, they ended up infecting every floppy disc subsequently inserted into their computers, even discs that had nothing to do with original program.

Shortly after the University of Delaware outbreak, Brain began popping up at other universities, and then at newspapers. The New York Times reported that a "rogue computer program" had hit the Providence Journal-Bulletin, though "damage was limited to one reporter losing several months of work contained on a floppy disk."

While there was never any legal action, the media response was explosive. Basit and Amjad began receiving calls from all over the world. They were as surprised as anyone that their little experiment had traveled so far.  After all, unlike today's computer viruses, which spread at lightning speed, Brain had to transmit itself the old-fashioned way -through human carriers toting around 5.25-inch floppy discs.

The boot sector of a Brain-infected disc. (Image credit: Avinash Meetoo)

But the binary genie was out of the bottle. Today, there are more than a million viruses vying to infect your computer; it's estimated that half of all PCs are or have been infected. Consumers shell out more than $4 billion per year for software to fight these digital dragons.

As for the brothers, the virus hasn't been bad for business. Their company, Brain Net, is now the largest internet service provider in Pakistan. While they maintain that they never meant to hurt anyone, they have nevertheless embraced Brain as a device that exposed the global nature of piracy.  "The virus could not have spread unless people were copying the software illegally," Amjad  said during his Pakistani TV interview.

The brothers, who told reporters that they stopped selling contaminated software sometime in 1987, are still based at the same address in Lahore -the one stamped into Brain's code.

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The article above, written by Robert Love, is reprinted with permission from the March-April 2012 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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"...As concerned as they were with piracy of their own software, that didn’t stop them from making and selling bootleg copies of other expensive programs, such as Lotus 1-2-3. "

So, they pirates didn't like piracy? They didn't like college kids making illegal copies of their software but they turn around and make illegal copies of someone elses and sell it for profits.
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I worked with an engineering, who started back in the 70’s. His first entry level job was to find a virus (worm) that was corrupting data in their primary analysis software. Apparently a previous employee who had gotten fired, decided to get revenge and created the virus and put it in the software.

The odd thing is, in the 70’s punch cards and mainframes were still the primary computing method. So the virus was dispersed somewhere in several large stacks of punch cards. To debug the software, he had to go through stack after stack of punch cards to figure out what in the heck was going on. He said it was the worst task he ever had in his long career.
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I remember my first viruses in the late 80's.. Ping Pong and Stoned virus.. That was the start of the big revolution and kicked off the whole computer secturity sector.
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Hello,

Dr. Alan Solomon, the founder of S&S Computing and creator of Dr. Solomon's Anti Virus Tool Kit, has mentioned that the Shoe variant of the Brain virus may, in fact, be an earlier version of the Brain virus, in which case the Alvi brothers are not responsible for creating this IBM PC boot sector virus, but rather for modifying someone else's work.

If you consider non-IBM compatible computers to be PCs, than the first "PC" virus might be Elk Cloner, written by a young man named Richard Skrenta a few years before Shoe/Ashar/Brain: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elk_Cloner

Regards,

Aryeh Goretsky
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In any case, I absolutely despise all virus-makers. May they all get major payback in karma-land. We innocent pc users shouldn't have to deal with all the hours and data lost because of their selfish need to create the viruses. Hate them all.
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