One Of The Earliest Computer Viruses Was Really DRM Gone Wrong
from the no-surprise-there dept
Author William Gibson has a nice little opinion piece claiming that we’ve now hit the 25th anniversary of “digital vandalism” in the form of computer viruses. I’m pretty sure he’s wrong about that, as just a few years back there were all those news reports about how Rich Skrenta (who later went on to found the Open Directory Project, Topix and Blekko) created the first widespread computer virus in Elk Cloner back in 1982. That said, Elk Cloner was more of a prank. The virus Gibson is talking about was more malicious, in that it locked up files. So, if Gibson’s point is that this was the first malicious virus, perhaps that’s more accurate (though, I would imagine there are some other claims to the throne).
Still, what may be most interesting is that the virus that Gibson discusses was really based on an early attempt at DRM:
IN January 1986, Basit and Amjad Alvi, sibling programmers living near the main train station in Lahore, Pakistan, wrote a piece of code to safeguard the latest version of their heart-monitoring software from piracy. They called it Brain, and it was basically a wheel-clamp for PCs. Computers that ran their program, plus this new bit of code, would stop working after a year, though they cheerfully provided three telephone numbers, against the day. If you were a legitimate user, and could prove it, they’d unlock you.
But in the way of all emergent technologies, something entirely unintended happened. The Alvis’ wheel-clamp was soon copied by a certain stripe of computer hobbyist, who began to distribute it, concealed within various digital documents that people might be expected to want to open.
Gibson talks about his own surprise that it was hobbyists who really drove digital vandalism (and to some extent, still do). What I find even more interesting is how early on DRM was already over-aggressive and getting in the way of legitimate uses.
Filed Under: drm, viruses, william gibson
Comments on “One Of The Earliest Computer Viruses Was Really DRM Gone Wrong”
Sounds eerily familiar
“You might do something we don’t like with something we see as our property despite selling it to you so we think we have the right to stop you using your other property (computer) entirely just in case.”
The more things change the more they stay the same……
The first virus I ever saw was the “pong” one, it drove a little white ball all across the screen and whipped out all the letter in its path LoL
About DRM, that DRM used today on DVDs can be used to make even more stealth filesharing apps.
I forgot the name but basically it messes with the filesystem and make it unreadable to software that tries to duplicate them but since DVD player rely on the IFO files to read content they are not affected.
An IFO file is base a location map of all the pieces and the order they need to be played, couple a map like that to steganographic software and you could embed anything in any media file(i.e. video, image, text, sound) and it would just look like garbage to any filter is that not beautiful?
People would just need to download the file map to reconstruct the original.
That just proves that technology is amorphous it needs a user to give it purpose.
There really isn’t much to it. Most code used in early viruses was “positive” code turned to negative means. Very early examples used lightly modified i/o routines (such as the floppy or tape drive software) lightly modified to add in extra code on every write or every file.
The difference between good and evil is how it is applied and used. It’s one of the reason that the BitTorrent (company) claims of torrents being innocent sort of falls on deaf ears, because they are mostly used for illegal file transfers, and not OS updates. Just like Brain, it has long since stopped being about what they wanted it to be, and is now just a way to try to hide illegal activity.
DRM causing damage to legitimate users was a problem on the C64 back in the early 1980s. The earliest protection schemes used intentional errors on the disk that would cause the drive’s head to violently bang against the stop, eventually throwing the drive out of alignment. They don’t really qualify as viruses though.
Just out of curiosity, are you suggesting that their method of shutting down a computer running their software whether you had paid for it or not without telling you was on the “good” side of the equation?
Also, you do realise that reading those sentences literally you are saying that DRM is now used for hiding illegal activity, don’t you? Or was that a freudian slip?
Clearly, if you pay for software, they were more than willing to give you the key and let you keep using it. You have to remember that this is back in a time before network communications, the interwebnet thingie, which made it possible for software to easily phone home to see if it is valid or not.
you do realise that reading those sentences literally you are saying that DRM is now used for hiding illegal activity
No, what I am saying is that legitimate code, which did a legitimate job, is now most often hijacked to create viruses, tollbar installs, and other malicious actions. Many of the “holes” in microsoft products are a result of trying to offer great flexibility to users (using one program in another, like word to write emails or spreadsheets in browsers). By permitting certain types of cross-application actions, Microsoft opened up a Pandora’s box of problems and holes.
Their intention was good, but now it is used just to hide illegal activity.
More cheese for the rodent, please!
Yea, that still sounds like you’re saying DRM is being used to hide illegal activity. Legitimate code taken to do a nefarious act like creating a virus (and releasing said virus upon the populous) is what i call doing something illegal.
More cheese for the rodent, please!
I want Feta!
You’re using the wrong word there. Toolbars, quite a few malware, and even Brain weren’t hiding crap. It’s was quite obvious what it was doing and that it was illegal. A better phrase is they are now used for illegal activity. Not a reason to ban the tool, just a reason to go after those using the tool in illegal ways.
No thanks - drm doesn't work
At a company I worked for as principal software engineer and architect for about 20 years, we investigated DRM tools (3rd party and in-house developed) to “protect” our enterprise manufacturing execution and cell control software from theft. We spent a considerable amount of resources (time and $$) to finally decide that it is better for us to not piss off our customers when a software glitch shuts down their factories at an “inconvenient” moment (for a semiconductor fab, that would cost about $10M USD / hour). We never had a problem with such theft, and we were accepted as the standard of the industry. When I left in 2005, we were one of the 60 largest application software companies in the world.
I like provolone.
Which answers my question I suppose – you don’t see anything even slightly dubious or overkill about turning someone’s computer (their property) into a brick in order to “protect” against an imagined “violation” of a single program that runs on it. I was expecting as much but it’s always good to get confirmation on these points.
And I know what you meant to say – I could have guessed without you writing a single word – I was simply pointing out that what you did write meant something else. Just trying to be helpful…..
“Pakistan, wrote a piece of code to safeguard the latest version of their heart-monitoring software from piracy.”
I don’t do IT for a hospital, but if I did – I would hire a programmer before I would put software on a machine that does heart monitoring that could be broken by DRM.
I’m sure hospital administration would agree that the cost of a programmer would be trivial as compared to the cost of a single law suit because DRM shut down a heart monitor.
Who would buy that garbage anyway?
And to add, personally – I just **hate** DRM. Am I opposed to buying software? If I was – I wouldn’t be complaining about DRM, because I’d have cracked versions without it.
Just recently, I wasted about an hour dealing with DRM on some specialized Graphics Software for an Image Setter we have. I had to bring up the ‘old server’ to deactivate the garbage DRM, and then port the licenses over to the newer server. Fine and all, but heck I was on the phone with their engineers – it cost us all time and that wasn’t a commodity we had a lot of that day. We were lucky to even get that old server up. I’m curious what would happen if we couldn’t? Would it be hours waiting on tech support to ‘reset’ the licenses? Probably.
And for what? Software that runs an old machine – that’s pretty much worthless if you don’t have the machine anyway? lol
I see a lot of custom software that’s “protected” that only works with a vendors hardware anyway – what’s the point of DRM?
There is a well-documented virus, or at least virus-like program, from 1975, significantly earlier than either program mentioned in this article. It was the ANIMAL program, an animal-guessing game, which, unannounced, copied itself into any directory accessible to the current user that did not already contain a copy of the program. ANIMAL was benign, so some would not classify it as a virus, but I think it qualifies.
For the complete story, ANIMAL’s author, John Walker (founder of AutoDesk), has it on his web site at
There probably are a few virus programs that were created earlier than ANIMAL was — some pranks by students at the early centers of computer science, most likely, but I’m not aware of them.
latest computer virus issues
The latest virus striking computers: Data Recovery is just another ransomeware, but this has an interesting twist. It hides all of your files, but places short cuts into the %Temp%smtmp folder.
Most users will tend to purge these temp files,but in this case you will lose your short cuts. Ouch!
More information can be found at:
DRM is a virus
DRM and monopolies are all thats wrong in the world today.
they want to be able to monitor us like sheep, with steam DRM its data mining and cloud computing, now we can only rent a game its gotten so bad.
Now Hollywood is buying our congress with “SOPA” & “PIPI”
sorry off subject but im pissed at DRM.