Tech Time Warp: Origins of the term “computer virus”
Now, nearly four years since the word “coronavirus” entered the popular lexicon, who doesn’t feel like an amateur epidemiologist? Given world events, it should be easy to understand why Leonard Adleman—the “A” of the RSA algorithm—was inspired by the graduate work of computer science Fred Cohen to describe the spread of malware as akin to a virus. This Tech Time Warp will dive into the history of the term “computer virus”.
A University of Southern California PhD student, Cohen had created a piece of malware as an experiment for a class taught by Adleman. Cohen demonstrated this malware during a Nov. 10, 1983, presentation at a security seminar at Pennsylvania’s LeHigh University. When loaded onto a machine via floppy disk, the malware “infected” the computer and made copies of itself, spreading to other machines. Adleman, who served as Cohen’s thesis adviser, noted the similarity to a biological virus, and the analogy stuck. It took Cohen’s virus an average of less than 30 minutes to take control of a machine.
IT on notice
The benevolent proof-of-concept code Cohen demonstrated in 1983 at LeHigh was not the first of its kind, though it did put the technology community on notice about the risk of malware. As early as 1949, John von Neumann was lecturing on self-replicating computer programs at the University of Illinois. In 1972, Austrian computer scientist Veith Risak published an article describing a virus for the SIEMENS 4004/35 computer system, and in 1980, Jürgen Kraus wrote a thesis in which he theorized that computer programs could behave like viruses.
Still, Cohen was the first to publicly demonstrate this capability, and Adleman’s use of the term “virus” was the one that stuck. Cohen went on to define a virus as “a program that can infect other programs by modifying them to include a, possibly evolved, version of itself” and published his own thesis in the February 1987 issue of Computers & Security journal.
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