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The Life and Death of the Creative Computer Virus



The early 90’s were a renaissance for a certain type of computer virus. Today, we think of a virus as an insidious thing that hides and wreaks various forms of havoc like destroying a nuclear facility; never peaking its head up intentionally. But there was a time when viruses were more playful and made their presence known with creative and occasionally funny graphics or animations via “payloads.” We recreated the payloads of old school viruses featured in the “wanted list” from Central Point’s ’91 anti-virus ad in high-res glory. “You could get by with an anti-virus program. Then again, so could these,” the ad warns. Check ’em out (below) from the safe confines of your browser window, downloadable for your creative remixing needs.
The life and death of the creative computer virus. Image 1.

While early computer viruses were certainly capable of destruction and minor havoc, they were often designed simply for the hackers’ own amusement and to deliver what’s known as a “payload.” It might be a message that tells you that cybertron69 has owned you, or it might be an elaborate animation with a political message. Hackers have moved on to using their time in more lucrative ways and just don’t get around to putting that cherry on top anymore.

The fact is, what we often consider to be a virus is no such thing. “Viruses of the 80s/90s were called so because they behaved like biological viruses,” Daniel White, an enthusiast who has built a loyal YouTube following by demonstrating old viruses and payloads, tells Hopes&Fears. “They required a host to take hold and self-replicated after an initial infection, they infected files or boot sectors much like biological viruses infect host cells, then use that infection as a way to spread itself further. In modern times, most malware is automated with email spreading routines, web exploits and trojan downloaders.”

Those players in the early days of viruses did their work “as a test of the author’s skill, or to harass unsuspecting users, and generally be a big nuisance.” White says, “Some authors chose to destroy a user’s files, others went for a more visual or gotcha! approach, and still others wrote viruses that simply spread without popping up any payload at all.”

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