Monday, January 23, 2006

Was Brain the first virus?

Several people asked me if Brain was really the first virus ... well no, it was the first PC virus.
The Brain computer virus started spreading among IBM PC systems 20 years ago this month, but the self-propagating program was not the first computer virus. The honors go to a UNIVAC program that acted as a carrier for a variant of the Animal game. The virus, though it was not called such, was dubbed PERVADE by its author, John Walker. A network administrator in the 1970s, Walker created the program to help him deal with all the requests for his variant of the ANIMAL program, a game where the computer would try to guess the animal the user was thinking about by asking yes-or-no questions. Other administrators would send him tapes on which he could copy the ANIMAL program. After mailing several tapes to interested people, Walker decided to create a program to distribute the game automatically. Whenever ANIMAL would run, the PERVADE program would look for writable directories on computer and copy itself to the directory. Within a few weeks, administrators at other companies started reporting the program on their systems. Walker went on to found AutoDesk in the 1980s. The Brain virus does not even get a trophy for the first general personal computer virus. That nod goes to the Elk Cloner program for the Apple II created by Rick Skrenta, now the co-founder and CEO of The program would infect Apple II disks and display a poem every fifth time the program ran. Four years after Skrenta created his cloner program, two Pakistani brothers, Amjad and Basit Farooq Alvi, created the Brain virus to infect IBM PCs. The program may have been the first attempt at "viral" marketing: An infected machine would flash a message on the screen, advertising the company Brain Computer Services of Lahore, Pakistan.