40 years of computer viruses: what helps?

The first computer virus was introduced on 10 November 1983 – as a study project. Today, virus protection programmes are standard on PCs – and yet malware is still spreading. The digital association Bitkom therefore gives us three tips for more computer security.

When the PC behaves strangely, the mouse pointer suddenly stops doing what it should, or simply nothing works, the diagnosis is often: computer virus! A fifth of Internet users in Germany (20 per cent) have fallen victim to computer viruses and other malware in the last twelve months.

And this is despite the fact that virus protection programmes are now standard: 9 out of 10 (89 percent) of those who use a private computer have installed appropriate protection software. These are the results of a representative survey commissioned by the digital association Bitkom among 1,186 people aged 16 and over in Germany. 40 years ago, on 10 November 1983, Fred Cohen, a computer science student at the time, demonstrated the first computer virus in a university seminar, which combines all the harmful functions that are common today: the program installs itself unintentionally on the PC and multiplies by attaching itself to other files. In the process, it changes itself, making it more difficult to detect. A year later, Cohen coined the term “computer virus” in his dissertation.

Trojans attempt to steal access data for online banking, for example, or enable access to the computer from outside, while ransomware encrypts the data and demands a ransom for recovery.

Computer viruses: what helps?

  1. Use virus protection:
    Use at least the virus protection of the operating system and activate it or leave it activated. The programs are regularly supplied with new information so that they can recognise malware that wants to nest on the computer.
  2. Be careful with emails and attachments:
    Whereas in the early years, computer viruses were mainly spread via data carriers such as floppy discs, today the Internet and above all email are the number one distribution channel. Most malware programmes can only be activated if users – unknowingly – run the software. The most important rule is therefore: do not click on email attachments if you do not know exactly what they are – even if the file appears harmless at first glance.
  3. Keep the operating system and software up to date:
    If updates are provided for the operating system or individual programmes, these should be installed as quickly as possible – ideally, this should be enabled automatically in the system settings. With updates, manufacturers often not only provide new programme functions, but above all close security gaps that have been discovered, which can also be used by malware to infiltrate the computer.

Even before Cohen's study project, there was malware that behaved in a similar way, such as the so-called “Creeper” in 1971. However, Cohen had incorporated the “mutation” of the programme code for the first time, so that the functionality of a virus was digitally recreated.

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