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The Evolutionary Stages of Computer Hacking

Code

By Charles Miller

When it comes to computer viruses or malware, the question is often asked, “Why’d they do that?”

Many decades ago, my second-grade elementary school teacher, Miss Lucy Tipton, had the answer to that type of question. She explained that anytime you ask a question beginning with “why did she…,” “when will they…,” “how much will he…,” or any similar variation, it means you are asking the question of the wrong person, and you should not expect to get an answer, especially not from Miss Tipton.

Ever since the computer virus appeared, computer industry people, along with psychologists and law enforcement organizations, have been trying to understand the motivations of the people who write viruses and malware. While there is yet no answer to the question “why’d they do that,” it seems to me there have been three distinct evolutions over the years.

In 1981, the first-ever computer virus was the “Elk Cloner,” which infected Apple computers. It was not destructive since it only displayed a poem. Later Apple viruses played German folk music or supported electing Michael Dukakis.

Two years later, viruses started infecting the IBM PC, and, similarly, they were all benign nuisances. It seems that in this first evolutionary phase, whoever wrote a virus did so just to prove they could or for bragging rights among other hackers.

This changed with the second evolution in the 1990s, when the MDEF/Garfield virus damaged Macs by corrupting files. The Michelangelo virus absolutely terrorized the PC world. These and other viruses were extremely destructive, and the only discernable motivation for writing them was to perpetrate acts of wanton vandalism.

The third evolutionary phase has come about in this century as the hackers who write malware programs changed their focus toward monetizing their programming skills. Junk malware programs such as MacSweeper for Mac and far too many to name for Windows infected computers of unsuspecting users, then tried to convince the users to pay to fix nonexistent problems.

Not enough victims were falling for this scam, so earlier in this decade, ransomware made its debut. A Trojan program would infect a system, encrypt all of the user’s files, and then demand a ransom to unlock the files. For the crooks, this, too, did not prove to be a successful business model: too many people failed to pay the ransom.

Continuing to seek financial rewards for their hacking, cybercriminals have now discovered cryptocurrency. Bitcoin and other currencies are created by mining for them with computers, and if the hackers are able to infect and take control of enough computers, they are able to use them to create new cybercurrency.

Perhaps today, the answer to the question “why’d they do that” is that the hackers and cybercriminals are now looking to reap some kind of financial reward.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981, and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com

 

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