The History of Computer Viruses

Computer Virus History

Viruses have plagued the computing industry for decades. No matter how advanced antivirus software becomes, hackers are always one step ahead. Prior to the 1980s home computers were virtually non-existent; therefore, viruses weren’t a widespread problem. Fast forward a few years to the early 1990s and there were only 1,200 in existence, most of which were spread using floppy disks and pirated video games.

By the late 1990s when the Internet became a common feature of the everyday household, hackers took virus creation to the next level. Email attachments and peer-to-peer networks, such as Napster, started spreading them faster than ever before, and what was once a manageable problem, got completely out-of-hand.

Today viruses are everywhere. They can infect software, hardware, tablets, phones – literally anything – and cost the economy hundreds of millions each and every year. To explain this phenomenon Cheeky Munkey have conducted a detailed study explaining exactly how the industry has grown since the 1970s.


The first ever virus to infect everyday computers was known as the Rabbit. While there had been malicious software in the past, it was only ever used to infect specific systems. The Rabbit never had an agenda apart from to make multiple copies of itself and reduce system performance. The following year the ANIMAL was created, which tried to make users guess which animal it was “thinking” of before granting access to their system. While these primitive viruses were an annoyance, they weren’t considered a major problem.


During the 1980s the virus industry started to expand and hackers began realising that they could use them to acquire sensitive information. By the middle of the decade they started spreading through pirated video games that were installed on floppy disks. At this point the first commercially available virus checkers were released.


Between 1990 and 1992 the amount of viruses in circulation increased by over 420%. With so many new viruses antivirus software struggled to keep up. The Good Times virus was one of the most significant of the decade and threatened to erase hard drives – but never actually did. By 1999 the Melissa virus was sprung upon the world and managed to infect more than one million computers.


In 2004 the most costly virus of all time was released – My Doom. This malicious software managed to infect everything from government portals to the British Airways website. Nowhere was safe and it eventually cost the world’s global economy over $30 billion. The second most harmful virus ever was also released shortly after. The Conflicker – which was thought to be the largest virus at the time. It even managed to break the security of the French Navy, UK Ministry of Defence and the Norwegian Police.


With the rise of smart phones and tablets new types of viruses started to emerge that hacked into portable systems. One of the most well known is the Flame, which can capture Skype conversations, audio and keyboard activity, monitor network traffic and take screenshots. Reports conducted by Budapest University’s CrySys Lab states that the Flame was the most complex and powerful malware ever created – a title it holds to this day.

Just like any real biological virus, malicious software adapts and changes to the environment. Hackers are always one step ahead of antivirus software and it’ll continue to be that way for the foreseeable future. What Cheeky Munkey’s infographic proves is that no system is immune. It doesn’t matter how advanced or costly it is, there will always be some leeway for corruption.

The History of Computer Viruses Infographic

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