What if there were no viruses?

It was a day that would remain in the memory. It started with some odd tweets, but nothing too worrying. “Help, Internet Explorer is opening pages by itself”, that sort of thing. Typical user error, of course.

What if there were no viruses?

Until it happened to me. Before my eyes – with no interaction – my computer was sending emails to friends, opening up websites and switching between pages too quickly to follow. Was that a PayPal authorisation? I couldn’t be sure what was going on, but it looked bad. I held down the power button until the screen went black, then sat back and thought hard.

Obviously, someone had installed some sort of remote-control program on my PC – but who, and when? No-one had visited in days. And judging by Twitter and Facebook, it was happening to lots of people at once.

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Was it conceivable someone was putting software onto people’s PCs remotely? It was hard to fathom how such a thing might be achieved. Then again, there was that email from Keith – not someone I’d expected to hear from. It contained no text, just a strange attachment that didn’t seem to do anything. Was it a trick? Was it possible Keith had gone off the rails and was sending out, for want of a better word, “dangerware” to old university acquaintances?

But then, one of the first things my own computer had done, once it had started going crazy, was send out a batch of emails from me to my friends and family. Was it possible someone had written a program that could replicate itself in this way? I’d never heard of such an idea, but the more I thought about it, the more plausible it seemed. Beginning to calculate how far such a program could spread, and – if it really was accessing websites – the damage it could do, I may have begun to hyperventilate a little.

That evening the story hit the mainstream media and we all learnt a bit more about what had happened. Computer experts had determined the culprit was a sophisticated program that spread from computer to computer in more or less the way I’d imagined – people were calling it “the plague”, because you could catch it like a sickness.

The jokey name was perhaps meant to defuse the actual seriousness of the situation: at first it had been feared the plague represented a never-before-seen form of terrorist attack. But experts had now established the program had actually been designed to steal money by transferring funds to a PayPal account based in Russia – a capability that had been quickly neutralised when PayPal, spotting a huge spike in transactions, blocked the account.

Properly ridding ourselves of the plague, however, looked like a major task. David Cameron was on the radio saying that, since the software had originated in Russia, the Russian government should pay for a mass clear up. Needless to say, that idea got short shrift.

Nobody seemed sure how such a clear up might be carried out anyway. There was talk of Microsoft releasing an update for Windows that would stop the code from running – but no-one seemed to know how long that would take to produce, nor indeed how the company could hope to persuade all of its half-billion customers to download and install the fix.

What was clear was that once your PC had caught the plague it was basically unusable, so until someone came up with a solution, the world was effectively without Windows. This was a huge deal. Part of me couldn’t help but admire the ingenuity of the plague’s creators, who had somehow managed to wreak this worldwide havoc using nothing more than a simple computer program. But the consequences were anything but admirable: while friends and family were able to continue using Twitter and Facebook on their phones, many companies were finding that, without Windows, they were unable to do business. Within 24 hours, George Osborne was on the Today programme making gloomy noises about the plague’s impact on the global economy.

Looking back on those frantic few days, I have to admit things didn’t turn out as badly as I’d feared. The billboards and radio adverts explaining how to delete the plague proved mercifully effective. All you had to do was search for a file called readme.scr – can you believe these guys came up with the idea of disguising their program as a screensaver? – and within a week we were largely back to normal. Today, new laptops comes with an updated version of Windows that automatically blocks readme.scr, so the plague can never again rear its ugly head. Problem solved.

What really happened

Computer viruses were conceived of by academic researchers as early as 1949, and the first PC virus struck back in 1986. But it took a string of major attacks in the late 1990s and early 2000s to really bring the threat to general attention – and force Microsoft and others to focus seriously on security. Had those millennial attacks not taken place, we could easily have rolled blithely along for several more years without protection.

Perhaps it’s a blessing that the likes of Melissa, ILOVEYOU and Blaster came along when they did, before our society became any more reliant on computers in order to function.

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