Creeper: The World’s First Computer Virus - Exabeam

Creeper: The World’s First Computer Virus

Published
March 05, 2019

Author
Tim Matthews

Read about the first computer virus that preceded computer networks, called the Creeper. German mathematician John von Neumann (famous for major contributions to economics, such as game theory) first theorized the concept in the late 1940s. He envisioned a computer virus as an automatically self-replicating entity. But it was another 30 years before someone created one.

At Exabeam, as people who live and breathe cybersecurity, we’re naturally fascinated by its history. In fact, we created a History of Cybersecurity 2019 Calendar to share our research. Each month features significant events in cybersecurity.

This is the third in a series of posts featuring information about interesting historical events in cybersecurity. You can read the first in the series here, and the second here. If you think we missed an important fact (or didn’t get something quite right), please let us know. You can also share your feedback with us on Twitter.

What Was the First Computer Virus?

The idea of a computer virus preceded computer networks. German mathematician John von Neumann (famous for major contributions to economics, such as game theory) first theorized the concept in the late 1940s. He envisioned a computer virus as an automatically self-replicating entity. But it was another 30 years before someone created one.

Jeepers Creepers – It’s a Worm!

An experimental network, ARPANET, existed years ago that would eventually give rise to the internet. Imagine the surprise of its few users (mostly computer scientists) when one day in 1971, connected teletype computer screens displayed the phrase: “I’m the creeper, catch me if you can!”

Although they didn’t know it at the time, they were the first computer virus victims. But what did the mysterious message mean and who sent it?

It turns out it wasn’t a hacker who coded the first computer malware. Bold, Beranek, and Newman* (now Raytheon BBN Technologies) were pioneers in packet switching networks such as ARPANET and the internet. One of its researchers had created Creeper.

Creeper was a worm—a type of computer virus that replicates itself and spreads to other systems. In this case, its targets were Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) computers linked to ARPANET.

But it wasn’t malware like we associate with today’s computer viruses—displaying its enigmatic message was all Creeper did. It didn’t encrypt files, demand a ransom, destroy data, steal Social Security numbers, or render centrifuges inoperable. It only displayed its taunting challenge.

It’s creator, Bob Thomas, had simply wanted to create an experimental, self-duplicating program to illustrate that it could be done. Doing so primarily out of scientific curiosity, he had fun in naming it as well—Creeper was a mysterious green ghoul who robbed banks on the popular ’70s cartoon show, “Scooby Doo.”

So, Creeper was the first, but it certainly wasn’t the last virus—as we all know. Following Creeper, which was isolated within the realm of researchers, Elk Cloner was the first virus to be detected in the wild. Written in 1982 by a 15-year-old, it was a boot sector virus that infected Apple II computers. It spread by way of a (then-) state of the art, removable storage technology—the floppy disk—to become the first major computer virus outbreak.

Today we continue to deal with the pesky and often highly destructive antics of increasingly more powerful computer viruses every day.

Click here for more information and trivia from Exabeam’s History of Cybersecurity 2019 Calendar.

Consider yourself a cybersecurity history buff? Share your feedback with us on Twitter.

* Internet trivia: on April 24, 1985, BBN.com became the second registered domain name.

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