Contrary to popular belief, the first widespread computer virus that actively spread ‘in-the-wild’ was designed to target Apple computers. This might surprise some staunch Apple users who still feel that their Macs are completely invincible and cannot be infected with any kind of malware whatsoever. In this post we will discuss the Elk Cloner virus, the first mainstream computer virus, which affected Apple II computers.
How was the Elk Cloner virus born?
The Elk Cloner virus was created in 1982; while in contrast, the first Microsoft OS virus (Brain) only surfaced in 1986 after a gap of 4 years. This is a fact that all Apple users who claim their Macs are completely secure should know. This virus was the first self-replicating computer program to spread on a large scale. Interestingly, the term ‘virus’ was only coined in 1984 to refer to a self-perpetuating program that caused inconvenience. So it is safe to say that the Elk Cloner virus had a major role in this nomenclature.
Elk Cloner was created by a 15 year old called Rich Skrenta who was in the 9th grade at the time. The virus was initially created as a joke and was only meant to be part of a game. Skrenta had absolutely no clue that his creation would reach such commendable heights. The virus spread via floppy disks, which were very popular at the time, and attached itself to Apple 3.3 operating systems.
Skrenta was already infamous amongst his friends for playing around with floppy disks and rigging them to shut down machines or display taunting messages. This led many of them to refuse disks handed over by Skrenta which in turn led him to develop a code that could self-replicate and spread to machines by itself.
What did the Elk Cloner virus do?
The Elk Cloner virus was the first virus in history that affected a machine during its boot-up process. Today, the popular term for such viruses is ‘boot sector virus’.
The virus affected the boot sector of infected Apple machines by attaching itself to an innocent looking game. Every 50th time that the machine would boot up, a blank screen and a poem would flash on the screen.
When a machine booted from an infected floppy disk, the virus would enter its memory. But when an uninfected floppy disk was inserted into a compromised machine, the virus would get transferred to that disk. Apart from this, no serious harm was known to have been caused by the Elk Cloner virus.
The virus bears very little resemblance to the malicious data stealing programs of today. However, it was a harbinger of all the malicious viruses and security threats that would only grow over time as more people purchased computers and then got connected to the Internet.
So the next time you hear an Apple user say that Macs do not get viruses that a Windows machine contracts, you can boldly claim that Apple was the first platform to get infected by a large-scale and self-replicating computer virus. The Elk Cloner virus, created 4 years before a Microsoft virus, heralded the arrival of massive malware over the increasingly popular Windows platform and other Mac related malware.
If there is one compelling lesson that can be learned here, it is this – No machine is completely invincible against malware threats, not even Apple Macs.