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The World’s First Computer Virus

The idea of a computer virus preceded computer networks. German mathematician John von Neumann first theorized the concept in the late 1940s. He envisioned a computer virus as an automatically self-replicating entity, but it was another 30 years before someone actually created one. ARPANET — an experimental network — existed years ago and would eventually give rise to the Internet. Imagine the surprise of its few users (mostly computer scientists) when one day in 1971, connected teletype computer screens displayed the phrase: “I’m the creeper, catch me if you can!” Although they didn’t know it at the time, they were the first computer virus victims. What did the mysterious message mean and who sent it? It turns out it wasn’t a hacker who coded the first computer malware. Instead, Bob Thomas, a researcher at Raytheon BBN Technologies, a packet switching network, had created Creeper. It was a worm — a type of computer virus that replicates itself and spreads to other systems. However, it wasn’t malware like we associate with today’s computer viruses — displaying its enigmatic message was all Creeper did. It didn’t encrypt files, demand a ransom, destroy data, steal Social Security numbers, or render centrifuges inoperable. It only displayed its taunting challenge. Thomas said he simply wanted to create an experimental, self-duplicating program to illustrate that it could be done.