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7 - Silicon Plagues

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 March 2017

Mikko Hypponen
Chief Research Officer of F-Secure in Finland and a columnist
Jonathan L. Heeney
University of Cambridge
Sven Friedemann
University of Bristol
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Digital technology is changing at a faster pace than any other part of our world. The development of the integrated circuit started a revolution that eventually led to the development of technologies like packet-switched networks, which were required to create the internet and the worldwide web. It's easy to see how many beneficial things personal computers and the internet have brought us. They have changed not only our communication and the way we entertain ourselves, but also the way we think. Unfortunately, they have also brought us new kinds of risks.

The online world is a reflection of the real world. Just like we have crime in the world, we have crime in the online world as well. The big difference is that distances and country borders do not exist in the online world – we are not safe from an online criminal just because he's living faraway. Today, our world is largely dependent on digital networks, from personal banking to stock markets to military systems.

How real is the risk of a digital Plague?

Very real.

We've already been fighting computer viruses and other types of malware for decades. They have evolved from simple, straightforward attacks to complicated, global outbreaks. In some ways, the evolution of online attacks resembles biological evolution. But the difference is that all computer attacks are created and launched by humans. By looking at examples of key malware attacks through the years, we can see how attacks on our digital world have evolved over time.

The Origins of Computer Viruses

Brain.A is considered to be the first PC virus in history. It was first detected in 1986. Several variants of the virus followed but most of them were fairly harmless. It ran on IBM-PCs and compatibles with PC-DOS operation systems. Brain was a boot sector virus, infecting the first sector of floppy discs as they were inserted into an infected computer. Brain was only a few kilobytes in size. Before Brain infected diskettes, it looked for a ‘signature’. This made it possible to ‘inoculate’ against the virus by putting the signature in the correct place of the boot sector of a clean floppy. Such floppies would not get infected even if they were inserted into an infected computer. The Brain virus tried to hide from detection by hooking the operating system functions that were used to read the floppy drive.

Plagues , pp. 168 - 183
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2017

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1. Hypponen, Mikko, “Retroviruses,” journal article, Virus Bulletin, 9/93.
2. Hypponen, Mikko, “Virus Activation Routines,” journal article, Proceedings of EICAR, (1995) pp. T3 1–11. 3.
3. Nakamoto, Satoshi, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System”, journal article published on, 1 Nov 2008.
Krebs, Brian, “Spam Nation: The Inside Story of Organized Cybercrime-From Global Epidemic to Your Front Door”, published by Sourcebooks, 18 Nov 2014, ISBN 978-1501210426.
Schneier, Bruce, “Schneier on Security”, published by Wiley, 29 Sep 2008,ISBN 0-470-395354..
Sikorski, Michael, “Practical Malware Analysis: The Hands-On Guide to Dissecting Malicious Software”, published by No Starch Press, 3 Mar 2012, ISBN 978-1593272906.
Szor, Peter, “The Art of Computer Virus Research and Defense”, published by Addison-Wesley Professional, 13 Feb 2005, ISBN 978-0321304544.

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