From creeping worms to costly viruses: The evolution of cybersecurity

From creeping worms to costly viruses: The evolution of cybersecurity

As with every other major technology developed by mankind, it didn’t take us long to demonstrate how the digital world could be used for nefarious means. Cyberspace was conceived of as a sort of utopian, open, free space for instant global communication – and that ideal is still alive in the minds of many users and entrepreneurs. But the last 30+ years have shown us that even the greatest of utopias need a defense force to protect it.

You reap what you creep

Did you own a computer in the 70s? Probably not. Did you know what the internet was? Definitely not, because it was called ARPANET back then: the earliest evolutionary ancestor of our interconnected lives. But while you remained in a state of blissful ignorance, it wasn’t only the internet that was being put together; a foundation for the digital virus was being laid.

Today, we fear internet-borne viruses like the plague and the threat of hackers disabling important infrastructure like electrical grids is very real. But it didn’t start out with such harmful intent. In fact, it was downright innocent behavior that created history’s first worm, called “Creeper”. It was nothing more than simple code written by BBN Technologies engineer Bob Thomas that reached computers connected to ARPANET (of which there were only a few) and playfully displayed the words “I’m the creeper: catch me if you can!” on the screen.

But the world’s first worm gave rise the world’s first cybersecurity mechanism, a slightly more sophisticated code from Bob’s colleague Ray Tomlinson that moved between computers on ARPANET, copied itself in the process and did nothing more than deleting Creeper. This countermeasure would forevermore be known as “Reaper”.

Early internet vulnerabilities

Creeper and Reaper had set a theoretical precedent for cyber threats and cybersecurity, but the digital space still wasn’t outright dangerous, as highlighted by the “Morris Worm” in 1989 – the first major case of a denial-of-service (DoS) attack. Robert Morris, the author of the new generation worm, argued in court that his code was only designed as a way to measure the size of the internet at the time. Whatever his intentions, the worm slowed infected computers and infected them multiple times until they became inoperable.

The Morris worm may have infected a whole 10% of computers connected to the internet and clean up was estimated to have cost anywhere from $100,000 to $10,000,000. Cybersecurity was caught unprepared and removing the worm required the entire internet to be shut down for several days on a regional basis. Industry experts, with both positive and negative intentions, were waking up to the power of cyber threats.

Cybersecurity on the backfoot

It would take a while for cybersecurity measures to catch up to the threats of viruses. In the same why firefighters are on duty to put out fires where they pop up, the Morris worm taught everyone that the internet needed its own emergency response team. CERTs (Computer Emergency Response Teams) were established to fill this role, but the early 90s saw them reacting to threats rather than trying to prevent them.

Antivirus software finally hit the market in the middle of the decade, offering a simple preventative solution to most basic viruses that could be installed on any computer. At that point, the internet had become saturated with viruses created by less-than-savory players in the industry who knew they could get away with simple harmful activity. While antivirus programs helped put an end to this proliferation, they also triggered an arms race.

As the capabilities of hackers and viruses became more and more sophisticated, awareness of potential threats and investment in protection increased. Things went well for over a decade until a series of complex attacks in recent years seemed to show that at least a few of those with malicious intent had gotten a step ahead of antivirus and security experts.

Target was hit, along with the British healthcare system and a number of other large institutions that employed the largest security companies using the most sophisticated defense techniques. But the good guys have learned from these incidents and stepped up their game even further. Will any network ever be 100% secure? Possibly not, but the consequences of ignoring cybersecurity are too big to ignore and large, complex attacks only highlight the need for businesses in the digital space to work closely with cyber experts who continuously keep themselves up to date with developments in the industry and keep the hackers on their toes.