Digital Bounty: The great crimeware awakening

This guest editorial was written by Roger A. Grimes, a technology evangelist at KnowBe4.

Criminals are awakening and taking advantage of their new digital bounty. Ransomware is just beginning to show us how bad it is soon going to be. We thought it was bad now. We really didn’t have a clue.

Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

How I wish for the days of yesteryear. I’m old enough to remember the dawn of computer hackers and malware. I wasn’t around in the ’50s and ’60s and not old enough in the ’70s to experience the very early and first digital criminals and their malicious creations firsthand. But I was around to see the first personal computer virus, Elk Cloner.

It was created by 15-year-old Richard Skrenta in 1982. It infected the boot sectors of Apple II computers and floppy disks. Skrenta meant it as a practical joke to mess with his friends, but as is often the case with auto-roving malware, it spread worldwide, causing all sorts of havoc.

I was fully involved in reading about and fantasizing about fighting computer crime during the discovery of Pakistani Brain, the world’s first IBM PC-compatible infecting virus, which came out in 1986. By the time the Jerusalem, Cascade, Stoned, and Lehigh viruses came out in 1987, I was disassembling them into their assembly language coding constituencies for a volunteer group called the PC Antivirus Research Foundation (created by Paul Ferguson) and using a precursor of the Internet called FIDONet to send my digital research findings to the computer antivirus discussion group and John McAfee.

For a long time, a decade-plus, most digital computer malware was written to be harmless jokes. They printed funny messages, played music, and made typed letters on your screen collect at the bottom of the screen area. The worst-behaving malware programs, like the Melissa virus (1999) and the Iloveyou worm (2000), flooded corporate email networks and paging systems.

Sure, there were the occasional malicious malware programs like the AIDS Cop virus (which was the first ransomware program) and the 1992 Michelangelo virus (which formatted hard drive partitions). Still, most were near benign and created more to prove that some young man somewhere…