Vector image of viruses flying around planet Earth.

­ Virus: Extraordinary Ordinary Things

Throughout the life of this blog (it started in December 2018), “extraordinary ordinary things” have been essentially things so integrated into our daily lives that we seldom think about them and their origins, e.g. the balloon, elevator, zipper, pencil, postage stamp, U. S. Constitution, etc. In virtually all cases, these seemingly unremarkable items have a long and well-documented history going back thousands of years . The topic of this essay, the “virus,” also has an extremely long history, dating back millions and millions of years rather than just a few millennia, and a backstory that is largely unknown and certainly not well-documented. Nevertheless, today viruses are at the top of most people’s minds, both in the area of health (COVID) and science (computer virus).

Although these two types of “virus” may seem to be worlds apart, there is a significant point of overlap. In its essence, a computer virus works very much like a biological virus.

Moreover, new viruses are being created daily, often by people who have no direct connection with computer science or computer technology but with sufficient understanding of programming to do mischief and sometimes real harm. But why do they go to the trouble?

One possible answer (and perhaps the most credible one) would echo a famous comment made by pioneering alpinist George Leigh Mallory. He was once asked, “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” To which he replied, “Because it’s there.”

As he explained, “Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and no man has reached its summit. Its existence is a challenge.” Virus writers seem to have the same mindset. They create and distribute malicious pieces of code simply to prove that they can.

Sadly, Leigh was never able to prove he could scale Everest to the summit because in 1924 he died in the attempt. The dream of conquering Everest was finally achieved in 1953, nearly 30 years later, to world acclaim by New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa companion Tenzing Norgay.

Given its undeniable impact on both the natural world and the world of computing, I am strongly persuaded that the virus, in both of its two basic manifestations, very much deserves a place on the list of “extraordinary ordinary things.”

What Is a Virus?

The term “virus” has been a baleful appellation since the 16th century. It derives from classical Latin, in which virus referred to poison, venom, and various bodily secretions, such as pus, associated with illness. The term’s earliest known use in English dates back to the late 14th century. It of course in no way referred to an extremely simple microorganism because at the time the existence of viruses or any other microorganisms was completely unknown.  Although speculated about for centuries, the actual discovery of microorganisms invisible to the naked eye occurred in the 1670s when Dutch scientist Antoine van Leeuwenhoek turned his then very primitive microscope onto a drop of pond water. Expecting to see nothing, he was taken aback to discover countless tiny organisms swimming around in the drop.

However scientific confirmation of the existence of viruses and other infectious microscopic organisms (microbes) did not occur until the work of the the French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, the German physician Robert Koch, and the English surgeon Joseph Lister demonstrated the bona fides of the germ theory of disease starting in the 1860s.

Biological Virus

The term “virus” in the common mind needs little explanation; it is a microscopic organism that enters the body and replicates, often causing severe damage to its host. In this way, a virus is very similar to other infecting biological organisms (bacteria, fungi, protozoa,  etc.). However, there is a significant difference.

All these other microorganisms are self-contained cells that can live and prosper inside or outside of a host body. By contrast, a virus is much simpler than even the simplest cell, being nothing more than genetic (RNA and DNA) material encased in protein. By itself, a virus cannot carry on any of the functions of a cell, which is why there is still an ongoing debate among microbiologists as to whether a virus can truly be said to be “alive.”

Alive or not, on its own a virus cannot do anything. To become active, it must first enter a living organism. Only then can it perform its seemingly only known biological function, which is to reproduce itself as rapidly and as abundantly as possible.

Specifically, when a virus gets inside an organism, it can hijack the organism’s cellular machinery to produce clones of itself, which then enter and hijack the biological machinery of other cells and continue to replicate. It does so by inserting disruptive coded material (RNA and DNA) into a normally functioning cell, allowing the virus to replicate itself, which is exactly what a computer virus does.

Computer Virus

Computer viruses are malware programs that, when executed, replicate by inserting copies of themselves into other computer programs, data files, or the boot sector of the hard drive. Viruses often perform some type of harmful activity on infected hosts, such as stealing hard disk space or CPU time, accessing private information, corrupting data, displaying political or humorous messages on the user’s screen, spamming their contacts, logging their keystrokes, or even rendering the computer useless.

The first known use of the term virus to describe a program that infects a computer appeared in David Gerrold’s 1972 sci-fi novel When HARLIE Was One. It also featured in John Brunner’s 1975 sci-fi novel The Shockwave Rider. 

Viruses were introduced to the internet around 1972. However, they did not become truly troublesome until the early 1980s, spawning numerous technical variations. Perhaps the most well-known by computer specialists and laymen alike is the “worm.” A worm is a program on one computer that sends copies of itself to other computers, where they immediately execute on arrival and repeat the contagion process. Worms can also carry a “payload,” i.e. code that steals or damages data.

Technically, a worm is not a virus because a virus is not activated until someone executes the program in which it has been embedded. Although specifically defined, the term “virus” has nevertheless become a general term for all categories of malware (malicious code that infects a computer). Other types of malware in addition to viruses are worms, Trojans (Trojan horses), ransomware, etc.

The easiest way to differentiate computer viruses from other forms of malware is to bear in mind the similarities between the computer virus and the biological virus. Remember, a biological virus cannot function on its own. It must first be introduced into a living cell before anything can happen. Likewise, a computer virus:

  1. Requires a host program
  2. Requires the host program to be activated to transmit it from one system to another
  3. Attaches bits of its own malicious code to other files or replaces files with copies of itself

In short, a computer virus cannot spread without some sort of action from a user. By contrast, a worm can spread across systems and networks on its own, making it much more dangerous.

Is It or Isn’t it?

Many computer users who are not professional coders or computer scientists tend to call all forms of malware viruses. It might be useful to look at some leading forms of malware to see if they are or aren’t viruses. So let’s play a game, “Is It or Isn’t it a Virus?”

  • Trojan (Trojan horse)

A Trojan can be a virus, but not necessarily. It is a computer program falsely pretending to do a job people want while surreptitiously harboring malicious code. Users download the program because they like its false promises, and then later are unpleasantly surprised when the malicious code executes. Thus, if a virus is disguised as something else to penetrate a computer, it is a Trojan. A Trojan could be a seemingly benign file downloaded off the web or a Word document attached to an email. Think twice about that downloaded feature film or “important” tax document from your accountant; it could contain a virus.

  • Worm 

As noted earlier, a worm is not a virus, although some people use the terms interchangeably and even put them together in the phrase “worm virus malware.” Remember, a virus is code that when executed inserts copies of itself into other code, and when that code executes it repeats the process. A worm is a program that makes copies of itself, which it sends to other systems on the network. When those systems execute the worm program, they repeat the process of sending copies to other computers on the network.

  • Ransomware 

Ransomware is a type of malware that threatens to publish the victim’s personal data or permanently block access to it unless a ransom is paid. While the very first ransomware programs were viruses, today most ransomware is introduced into a system as a worm, meaning that, once activated, it is capable of automatically spreading from one system to another and across networks with no initiating action from the system user required. Ransomware starts with “phishing” (pronounced “fishing”). For example, a fraudster sends false emails that pretend to be from people the user trusts and gets them to click on a link; the link then downloads the worm and starts executing it. The results can be widespread and devastating. The 2017 WannaCry ransomware worm spread around the world, took down thousands of Windows systems, and raked in an appreciable amount of Bitcoin ransom payments for the alleged North Korean attackers. Ransomware perpetrators usually demand payment in Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies because they are (virtually?) untraceable.

  • Rootkit

A rootkit is a software package of tools designed to give attackers “root” access or administrative access to a given system. Rootkits are not viruses because they can neither self-replicate nor spread across systems.

  • Software bug

A software bug is not a virus. Rather it is a flaw or mistake in the code. If not caught before the software is used, bugs can cause programs to behave in ways the software manufacturer never intended, sometimes with globe-girdling consequences. For example, the famous Y2K (Year 2000) bug seemed likely to take down countless computer systems around the world at the turn of the millennium. Fortunately, the direst of the predicted consequence never occurred, but extreme nervousness gripped the world in the last few years of the 1900s until the calendar changed to the 2000s.

Are Viruses Always Bad?

To most people other than virologists, the term virus typically conjures up the notion of something bad, and even lethal. However, as forcefully pointed out in “The Good that Viruses Do,” an article in the Spring 2022 edition of Harvard Medicine, author Stephanie Dutchen writes: “Although some two hundred kinds of viruses are known to infect, sicken, or kill us, as the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 has most recently hammered home, that’s only one part of the picture. Viruses also keep us alive. They form part of the body’s microbiome and safeguard our health. They can be harnessed to treat illness, deliver vaccines, and diagnose infections. They’re wielded as research tools to illuminate biology and disease and develop new drugs. We can thank snippets of viral genomes, incorporated into our DNA tens of millions of years ago, for how our reproductive and nervous systems work.”

Before going into detail about what makes good viruses good, she also quotes several other authorities in the field. Here are three of the most pertinent quotes:

  • “Despite the devastating effects of viral diseases, the viruses that count most in our lives are crucial not in disease but in health and in all aspects of life,” says Eugene Koonin, a specialist in the genetics of evolution and viruses at the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Biotechnology Information.
  • “We love viruses for all of our work,” says Connie Cepko, the Bullard Professor of Genetics and Neuroscience at the Blavatnik Institute of the Harvard Medical School. Her lab members have devised virus-based tools to map circuits in the brain, prolong vision in mouse models of inherited blindness, and test for SARS-CoV-2.
  • “Viruses are useful in a ton of ways in research and the clinic,” says Timothy Lu, M.D., an associate professor of biological engineering and electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. “We have these amazing, approved therapies, yet we’re just scratching the surface of what viruses can do to modify and treat diseases.” A pioneer in synthetic biology, Dr. Tu is a co-founder of San Francisco-based Senti Biosciences, whose stated mission is to “create a new generation of smarter medicines that outmaneuver complex diseases using novel and unprecedented approaches.”

While there is broad agreement that biological viruses can be good, there is equally broad agreement that computer viruses are bad. The argument against the notion of a “good computer virus” was extensively examined in a 2002 Computerworld article.

Some observers have suggested that self-replicating software–viruses and worms–could be put to beneficial use, such as for distributing software, looking for and patching system vulnerabilities, or sniffing out other viruses and destroying them.

Forget it, experts say.

“Every few months, somebody comes up with this ‘But can’t viruses be used for good?’ idea. Well, no, they can’t,” says Vesselin Bontchev, an antivirus researcher at Frisk Software International (Reykjavik, Iceland). “Viruses, by their inherent properties, take away from the user the control over his or her computer. Nothing good can be achieved this way.”

“There’s little justification for using techniques like self-replication that are so difficult to control,” says security expert Richard Ford, chief technology officer at Cenetec LLC (Boca Raton, Florida). “I’m not sure there’s a great deal you can do with viruses that you can’t do in another way that is easier to control.”

Graham Cluley, a senior technical consultant at Sophos Anti-Virus PLC (Oxford, England) says a few attempts have been made to create “good” viruses. Cruncher, for example, was designed to save disk space by compressing executable files. And the Noped virus was written to search for pornographic materials on PCs and alert authorities when it finds them.

Anthes, G. Good Viruses. Computerworld. April 1, 2002

When Viruses Help

Despite all the damage viruses have inflicted over the years, a handful of experts believe that someday computer viruses could be used for good. They contend that such good computer viruses would mainly be used to distribute network patches to repair system vulnerabilities.

Despite this flicker of optimism, for many computer scientists the very concept of a “good computer virus” seems to be inherently contradictory. Some of the arguments against the notion of a good computer virus are the following:

  • The virus would have to exclude the primary function of a typical virus, which is running on a targeted system without authorization.
  • The propagation of a good virus would be similar to the propagation used to deliver a malicious virus.
  • The supposed good virus would not only spread and execute itself without authorization. It would also consume bandwidth, disk space, memory, and processor cycles, potentially resulting in the denial of these resources to system administrators, commonly known as a DoS (denial-of-service) attack.
  • Because it can combine its code with an individual program, it has been suggested that the good virus could be limited to removing unwanted programs. However, this would be an inconvenience for programmers developing self-extracting archive software.
  • The good virus would have to distinguish another from a malicious program. Both would behave similarly with the tendency to damage or destroy other files. Creators of such viruses must be extremely careful to script their codes to identify other good variants, a task that seems difficult or next to impossible when considering polymorphism.
  • If a good virus happened to mistakenly delete software and operating system patches, it would essentially be just as destructive as malicious viruses.
  • Unscrupulous programmers could transform a good virus into a malicious one, which in turn could be used to destroy all other good viruses in the system.
  • By its very nature, a virus spreads randomly from machine to machine, so there is no way of knowing where it may ultimately go.
  • All programs, including viruses, contain bugs that can have unintended and damaging consequences.
  • Good viruses are likely to produce many false positives from virus scanners, costing users the time it takes to respond to the alerts.

As one dedicated opponent of the notion of a good computer virus has cautioned: “With so much still in the air, we may find ourselves reflecting on the day when good viruses first invaded our systems, strengthening the malicious epidemic. If these viruses of the future aren’t written properly, they could inevitably improve the breed of destructive programs just before being wiped out by variants of their own code. While this is certainly a hot topic, many security experts believe that spreading good viruses could eventually end up causing more harm than good.”

As one knowledgeable wit put it, “Because of this, some experts believe that anyone found guilty of distributing a good virus should be charged with the same offense as someone distributing malicious code

Fun Facts about Computer Viruses

 It may seem odd to include a section on “fun facts about computer viruses” because virtually no computer users would see anything fun about them—except perhaps for miscreants who develop and plant them. Almost by definition, a computer virus is designed to do no good, i.e., disrupt the normal functioning of a computer to extort money, promote a cause, or simply self-aggrandizement (demonstrate to the world just how clever the author of the virus is).

Nevertheless, for many computer users, and notably those directly or indirectly associated with the computer industry, learning new things about viruses is inherently “fun.” So here are a few facts about computer viruses that may make you sit up and take notice, and even bring a smile to your face.

  • Computer viruses were once considered to be of little consequence rather than the menace that today we all know them to be. For example, in 1988 computer legend John McAfee opined, “The problem of viruses is temporary and will be solved in two years.”
  • The first recognized computer virus was the Creeper Virus detected on ARPANET, the forerunner of the internet, in the early 1970s. It was an experimental self-replicating program written in 1971 by Bob Thomas at BBN Technologies (Cambridge, Massachusetts), now a subsidiary of Raytheon.
  • Numerous sources falsely credit (or blame) legendary computer science pioneer John von Neumann for creating the first computer virus in the 1940s. This is pure fiction. What von Neumann did was to show that it is possible to give a code with a print statement in it such that executing the code causes the statement to print out the original program. A tricky programming exercise, its only purpose was to print out copies of itself. There is no other “payload” code to do any sort of damage.  von Neumann pointed this out because he saw a similarity between a self-replicating cell and a self-replicating program. He certainly never had any intention, and probably never even imagined anything like a computer virus, which did not make its unwelcome appearance until the 1970s, some three decades later.  
  • Currently, there are three basic categories of malicious software threats: viruses, worms, and Trojans. While their behavior differs, they are all built from the same basic instructions and computer logic.
  • The typical malicious software author is a male from 14–25 years old. Only a few female virus writers have so far been identified.
  • About 70 percent of virus writers work under contract for an organized crime syndicate.
  • According to the Microsoft Security Intelligence Report and Consumer Reports, 40 percent of U.S. households are affected by computer viruses.
  • Writing computer viruses is not illegal in many industrialized countries that depend on computers to run their economies. However, this anomalous situation is beginning to change. For example, in Germany mass exchange of computer viruses for any reason is restricted. Finland recently went a step further by clearly defining the writing of a computer virus to be unlawful.
  • Currently, it is estimated that more than 6,000 new computer viruses are being created and released every month.
  • The costliest computer virus of all time (MyDoom) caused an estimated $38 billion of damage. It was fast-moving, infecting open networks, and every computer with access to these networks. In 2004, the MyDoom virus was estimated to impact 25 percent of all emails.
  • To date, there is no known virus that can infect a computer simply by opening an email. Viruses sent by email can be activated only when you click a link or open an infected attachment.
  • It is estimated that up to 90 percent of emails contain malware.
  • It is estimated that about 32 percent (one in three) of all computers in the world are infected with malware.
  • In order to uncover their vulnerabilities, Facebook pays $500 to anyone who can hack into their system.
  • Despite maximum effort of computer security researchers and developers, at present there is no existing antivirus software capable of exposing all computer viruses.
  • Viruses can be written in a number of programming languages, e.g., assembly language, scripting languages (such as Visual Basic or Perl), C, C, Java, and macro programming languages (such as Microsoft’s VBA).

Quotations about Viruses

You can often learn a lot about the impact of an invention on society by listening to what people have said about its evolution and integration into daily life. Here are a number of quotations about the virus to prove the point.

Viruses in general

“Love is like a virus. It can happen to anybody at any time.”—Maya Angelou

“Language is a virus from outer space.”—William S. Burroughs

“If an employee told you he had the flu, you’d send him home. If an employee told you he was feeling anxious, you’d probably tell him to get back to work. But the emotion is just as contagious as a flu virus.”—Chip Conley

“In the original introduction to the word meme in the last chapter of The Selfish Gene, I did actually use the metaphor of a ‘virus.’ So when anybody talks about something going viral on the Internet, that is exactly what a meme is, and it looks as though the word has been appropriated for a subset of that.”—Richard Dawkins

“Skepticism may be evidence of a healthy and independent mindset, but conspiracism is a virus that feeds off insecurity and bitterness.” —Mehdi Hasan

“Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus, or other dangers we have not yet thought of.”—Stephen Hawking

“I discovered in Melbourne how wonderful it is to be part of a successful team, when good morale spreads throughout the squad, among athletes and coaches, and infects you like a virus—but one that you want to catch.”—Chris Hoy

“Freedom is the most contagious virus known to man.”—Hubert H. Humphrey

“Behavior is a virus. We spread our behavior to those around us, whether passively or on purpose.”—Justin Kan

“Misinformation is a virus unto itself. And Fox News is the vector.”—Brianna Keilar

“There’s no one place a virus goes to die – but that doesn’t make its demise any less a public health victory. Throughout human history, viral diseases have had their way with us, and for just as long, we have hunted them down and done our best to wipe them out.”—Jeffrey Kluger

“I had a dream, in 1985, I believe, when a friend I’d gone to school with was sick—one of the first people I knew who’d gotten the AIDS virus. I had a dream of him in his bedroom with an angel crashing through the ceiling. I wrote a poem called ‘Angels in America.’ I’ve never looked at the poem since the day I wrote it.”—Tony Kushner

“An inefficient virus kills its host. A clever virus stays with it.”—James Lovelock

“Indecision is a virus that can run through an army and destroy its will to win or even to survive.”—Wendell Mayes

“An asteroid or a super volcano could certainly destroy us, but we also face risks the dinosaurs never saw: An engineered virus, nuclear war, inadvertent creation of a micro black hole, or some as-yet-unknown technology could spell the end of us.”—Elon Musk

“You can’t take a knife on a plane anymore, but you can get on carrying a virus.”—David Quammen

“National politics and elections are dominated by emotions, by lack of self-confidence, by fear of the other, by insecurity, by infection of the body politic by the virus of victimhood.”—Tariq Ramadan

“Great writers arrive among us like new diseases threatening, powerful, impatient for patients to pick up their virus, irresistible.”—Craig Raine

“I pictured myself as a virus or a cancer cell and tried to sense what it would be like.”—Jonas Salk

“Great writers arrive among us like new diseases threatening, powerful, impatient for patients to pick up their virus, irresistible.”—Jerry Saltz

“The mutating virus of multiculturalism has escaped its breeding ground in elite universities and is now running rampant across popular culture, entertainment, and politics.”—Tom Tancredo

“Think of the Earth as a living organism that is being attacked by billions of bacteria whose numbers double every forty years. Either the host dies, or the virus dies, or both die.”—Gore Vidal

“I don’t think that people should have the choice to infect others with a potentially fatal and extremely contagious virus.”—Leana S. Wen

“You see a virus very differently when it’s caught and suspended on a slab of glass than when you’re observing how it’s ravaged a fellow human being.”—Hanya Yanagihara

Computer viruses

“Modern cyberspace is a deadly festering swamp, teeming with dangerous programs such as ‘viruses,’ ‘worms,’ ‘Trojan horses’ and ‘licensed Microsoft software that can take over your computer and render it useless.”—Dave Barry

“Writing a computer virus program is child’s play. Any fool can do it, which is why the silly little twerps who do have nothing to be proud of.”—Richard Dawkins

“We have met the Devil of Information Overload and his impish underlings, the computer virus, the busy signal, the dead link, and the PowerPoint presentation.”—James Gleick

“I think computer viruses should count as life. I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. We’ve created life in our own image.”—Stephen Hawking

“(Computer viruses) switch from one country to another, from one jurisdiction to another – moving around the world, using the fact that we don’t have the capability to globally police operations like this. So the Internet is as if someone (had) given free plane tickets to all the online criminals of the world.”—Mikko Hypponen

“In view of all the deadly computer viruses that have been spreading lately, Weekend Update (CNN news program) would like to remind you: when you link up to another computer, you’re linking up to every computer that that computer has ever linked up to.”—Dennis Miller

“I was addicted to hacking, more for the intellectual challenge, the curiosity, the seduction of adventure; not for stealing, or causing damage or writing computer viruses.”—Kevin Mitnick

“Computer viruses are an urban legend.”—Peter Norton

“We live in a world where we’re all on computers and tablets and phones, all the time, so something as odd as computer hacking or a virus is really scary because it gets to the heart of our security.”—Denis O’Hare

“People’s computers are not getting more secure. They’re getting more infected with viruses. They’re getting more under the control of malware.”—Avi Rubin

“Our examination of computer viruses leads us to the conclusion that they are very close to what we might define as ‘artificial life.’ Rather than representing a scientific achievement, this probably represents a flaw in our definition.”—Gene Spafford

It would be a grievous error not to conclude with perhaps the most prescient quote of all.

"In our interconnected world, novel technology could empower just one fanatic, or some weirdo with the mindset of those who now design computer viruses, to trigger some kind of disaster. Indeed, catastrophe could arise simply from technical misadventure, i.e. error rather than terror."—Martin Rees

Where Do We Go From Here?

In the early days of computing, viruses were more of a myth than a real threat; however, over the decades the situation has dramatically changed. Today, malicious software are great menaces to anybody and anything from government to individual computer users. Created and programmed by anybody—experienced hackers, keen amateurs, and even children.

Each advance in computer theory or technology provides a new opportunity for coding miscreants to develop and spread new viruses.

Thus, it seems that now, and probably well into the foreseeable future, computer scientists and manufacturers need to ensure that whatever innovations they bring to market are as virus-resistant as possible.