Computer Viruses

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In January 1986, two brothers, Basit and Amjad Farooq Alvi, created “Brain A,” the first computer virus to attack the MS-DOS operating system, in Lahore, Pakistan. The programmers, aged 17 and 24, respectively, ran a computer store that sold software—both their original creations and pirated versions of popular programs like Lotus 1-2-3 and WordStar. Alarmed that their customers were illegally copying their software, they created a “friendly” virus designed to track how far the programs had spread and to punish the piracy. It was the first of millions of viruses to strike personal computers, and the dawn of the $4 billion anti-virus industry.

In creating the virus, the brothers’ purported targets were customers who illegally copied a heart monitoring program they designed for IBM-compatible computers. But they also included the virus on the 5.25 inch floppy disks storing software that they had pirated themselves and sold to American tourists. These buyers paid as little as $1.50 for programs that cost hundreds of dollars in the United States.

When buyers got home and loaded the software, a virus infected the boot sector of their floppy disks. It slowed down the floppy disk drive, but generally did not infect the hard disk. As a result, users often did not notice their computers were infected. When they copied the program and distributed it to other users, floppy disks inserted in their computers became infected. Unlike a modern virus, of course, its destructive potential was limited to computers exposed to an infected disk.

All along, the brothers were selling pirated versions of foreign software to Pakistani buyers that was free of bugs, under the rationale that computer software could not be copyrighted in Pakistan. But the software they sold to Americans contained the virus.

Perhaps the most surprising part of this story was that the brothers actually included their names, addresses, and phone numbers in the lines of infected code, urging victims to “Contact us for vaccination.” They soon received numerous calls from the United States and Europe demanding that the programmers disinfect their computers. A media frenzy ensued. The New York Times, TIME Magazine, and other outlets all reported on this act of programmer retribution.

Basit and Amjad Farook Alvi never faced criminal charges but claimed to stop selling infected software in 1987. They became leaders in Pakistan’s technology industry, and now run its largest internet service provider, Brain Net.