The cyberplague that threatens an internet Armageddon

In 1971, Bob Thomas, an engineer working for Bolt, Beranek and Newman, the Boston company that had the contract to build the Arpanet, the precursor of the internet, released a virus called the “creeper” on to the network. It was an experimental, self-replicating program that infected DEC PDP-10 minicomputers. It did no actual harm and merely displayed a cheeky message: “I’m the creeper, catch me if you can!” Someone else wrote a program to detect and delete it, called – inevitably – the “reaper”.Although nobody could have known it 40 years ago, it was the start of something big, something that would one day threaten to undermine, if not overwhelm, the networked world. For as we became more and more dependent on information and communications technology, we were also subjected to a plague of what came to be called “malware”.It’s an ugly term, as befits something that covers a multitude of sins, all involving computer code designed with destructive or malevolent intent. It includes not only viruses, which are programs that replicate by copying themselves into other programs, but also worms (self-replicating programs that use a network to send copies of themselves to other machines on the network, with or without human assistance) and Trojans (similar to viruses but instead of replicating they infiltrate a computer and perform some illicit activity, possibly under remote control). Malware also refers to other evils: the junk mail we call spam; “phishing”, or trying to hoodwink internet users into revealing bank account passwords etc; page-jacking, which makes it difficult or impossible for a victim to get rid of a web page; and other scams.

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