What is a virus, and where do they come from?

Nearly everyone who owns a computer has heard of and fears the computer virus. Conficker virus made world news, infecting over 15 million computers globally and spurring Microsoft to offer a quarter of a million dollars reward for the virus creator's prosecution. This virus outbreak serves as a reminded as to how vulnerable our personal information can be online, but what are computer viruses, and where do they come from?

What is a Virus?

A computer virus is any program that can copy itself and infect a computer, much like a regular virus can spread from person to person.

Viruses replicate to gain control of computer systems and corrupt computer programs, data files, and other computers. These malicious programs are often very small, enabling them to run on a computer without the user ever being aware of their presence.

Once installed, a virus can spread itself through several methods. It can email itself as an attachment, infecting every sent email, or silently generate emails to everyone in your address book. Viruses can also infect USB drives and CD/DVDs, spreading from one computer to another via the user. Even more alarmingly, some viruses can simply use an infected machine as a launch point and spread to all computers connected to a network without user intervention.

How are Viruses Made?

Richard Skrenta, the man credited with creating the very first computer virus in 1982, had no idea that his simple high school prank could cause so much destruction one day. Viruses have evolved into instruments that destroy computer systems and networks and steal user identities and banking information.

All computer viruses are created by rogue programmers, often referred to as hackers, but their motivations vary greatly.

Some create viruses as revenge for perceived injustices. These hackers are normally disgruntled employees or people who believe 'the system' has failed them somehow. They may write a virus to destroy company computers and networks or target government agencies. Though these viruses can cause great damage, they are normally isolated to specific targets.

Adolescent hackers still make up a significant number of virus creators. Many create viruses just to see 'what will happen,' and others create these electronic menaces hoping to make the news. The motivation of these teenage hackers is to prove their programming ability and gain recognition from their peers and, ultimately, the rest of the world.

However, a growing number of virus writers work for syndicated crime rings, and their software has a much more defined purpose. Syndicated hackers create viruses to gain access to remote computers. These programs copy personal information such as banking details, home addresses, names, and government identity numbers. Unscrupulous individuals frequently sell the stolen data to facilitate identity fraud and spam and generate website traffic for profit. These programmers have plenty of motivation.

Identity theft in the US alone reached nearly $43 billion during 2023.