Technology: Invasion of the Data Snatchers

A "virus" epidemic strikes terror in the computer world

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In those early days, when each computer was a stand-alone device, there was no threat of a runaway virus. If things got out of control on a particular machine, its keepers could simply shut it down. But all that changed when computers began to be connected to one another. A self-replicating organism created in fun could be devastating if loosed upon the world of interconnected machines. For that reason, the Core War combatants observed an unspoken vow never to reveal to the public the details of their game.

In 1983 the programmers' code of honor was broken. The culprit was Ken Thompson, the gifted software engineer who wrote the original version of Unix, the computer operating system now coming into widespread use. Thompson was being presented the Association for Computing Machinery's prestigious A.M. Turing Award when he gave a speech that not only revealed the existence of the first computer viruses but showed the audience how to make them. "If you have never done this," he told them, "I urge you to try it on your own."

His colleagues were aghast, but the secret was out. And the revelation was further compounded by Dewdney's landmark article in the May 1984 issue of Scientific American, which described Core War and offered readers who sent $2 for postage a copy of the guidelines for creating their own viral battlefields.

Soon software viruses began appearing in university computer systems and in the widely proliferating desktop computers. A rogue program that made the rounds of Ivy League schools featured a creature inspired by Sesame Street called the Cookie Monster. Students trying to do useful work would be interrupted by persistent messages saying "I want a cookie." In one variation, the message would be repeated with greater and greater frequency until users typed the letters C-O-O-K-I-E on their terminal keyboards.

But not all viruses are so playful. One particularly vicious program deletes everything stored on the computer and prints the word GOTCHA! on the screen. Another takes the form of a game called "" It delights unsuspecting users with an animation featuring the singer Madonna before erasing the files on their disks. Then it chortles, "You're stupid to download a video about rock stars."

Such pranks enrage the original Core War programmers. McIlroy and his friends took care that their high-tech high jinks did not put other people's programs and data at risk. "I'm amazed at how malicious some of today's players are," says McIlroy, who is now a senior member of the technical staff at Bell Labs. "What was once a friendly, harmless game has deteriorated into something that is neither friendly, harmless, nor a game."

So far, the mainframe computers that do much of the most vital information processing in the U.S. remain relatively unscathed. "With mainframes, we've got a whole regimen of quality control and data integrity that we use," says Bill Wright, a spokesman for EDS. But with the rapid spread of PC-to-mainframe linkups, that safety could be compromised. "If the same sorts of standards aren't applied soon to the PC environment," says Wright, "it's going to be a real problem for the whole industry."

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