Creeper: The World’s First Computer Virus - Exabeam

Creeper: The World’s First Computer Virus

Published
January 01, 2022

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4 mins

At Exabeam, as people who live and breathe cybersecurity, we’re naturally fascinated by its history. This is the third in a series of posts featuring information about interesting historical events in cybersecurity. The first in the series examines Operation Aurora and the series of 2010 cyberattacks by the Chinese Elderwood Group, which has ties to the People’s Liberation Army. The second post delves into the origins of SSL and web security. If you think we missed an important fact (or didn’t get something quite right), please share your feedback with us on Twitter.

What was the first computer virus?

The idea of a computer virus preceded computer networks. German mathematician and father of game theory John von Neumann 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 computer network, ARPANET, was created in 1969 and was the precursor to the internet. It was designed to send communications from computer to computer over long distances, without the need for a dedicated phone connection between each computer. To achieve this required a method of dividing and sending data that is now known as packet switching. It’s few early users were mostly computer scientists. Imagine theirsurprise 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 virus, and it wasn’t sent with malicious intent. Bold, Beranek, and Newman* (now Raytheon BBN Technologies) were pioneers in packet switching networks like ARPANET and the internet. One of its researchers, Bob Thomas, had created Creeper as an experimental computer program.

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 which were 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.

Its creator had simply wanted to create an experimental, self-duplicating program to illustrate that it was possible. Doing so primarily out of scientific curiosity, he had fun in naming it as well — Creeper was a mysterious ghoulish green bank robber on the popular ’70s cartoon show, “Scooby-Doo.”

So, Creeper was the first computer virus, but it certainly wasn’t the last  — as we all know. Following Creeper, which was isolated within the realm of researchers, Elk Cloner was the first personal computer virus to be detected in the wild. Written in 1982 by a 15-year-old high school student named Richard Skrenta, 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. It was not deliberately harmful, but it did damage some disks and otherwise cause annoyance by displaying the following poem on infected computers every 50th boot:

ELK CLONER:

THE PROGRAM WITH A PERSONALITY

IT WILL GET ON ALL YOUR DISKS

IT WILL INFILTRATE YOUR CHIPS

YES, IT’S CLONER!

IT WILL STICK TO YOU LIKE GLUE

IT WILL MODIFY RAM TOO

SEND IN THE CLONER!

Today, we continue to deal with the pesky and often highly destructive effects of increasingly powerful computer viruses.

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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