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  • Annika Santhanam

When Viruses Go Viral - Some of the Most Famous Computer Viruses of All Time




In a world that is ever evolving in its use of technology, maintaining the security of our devices, networks, and personal information shared online has increasingly become a priority in our personal lives and for major organizations that use our data. Though many platforms are rigorous in their cybersecurity protocols, many major infiltrations have occurred over time, caused by some of the most advanced computer viruses ever developed!


Computer viruses are a form of malware, or infected software, that infiltrates a system through some sort of user action. This includes downloading an infected file, clicking on a webpage that carries and installs the virus on your computer, and more. Computer viruses can be spread through malicious files sent through email or text messages, and oftentimes they work to steal data off of your computer or damage your system. Malicious computer viruses have wreaked havoc for several decades, and in these years there have been a few viruses that have made the charts for the most devastating hacks of all time.


Let’s look at some of the most famous viruses in history, how they spread, and what they did to wreak so much havoc!


1) The ILOVEYOU Worm


If you ask any cybersecurity expert what the most famous form of malware ever deployed is, they most likely will always mention the ILOVEYOU worm. A worm is unlike a standard virus because it is able to self-replicate, and in this case, the worm self-replicated and sent itself across multiple computers.


 This virus was deployed in May 2000 as a form of malware in an email attachment - an email with the subject “ILOVEYOU” would be sent to a person through Microsoft Outlook’s mail server, and if the person clicked on the attachment in the email, the virus would automatically infect their device. Once installed on the user’s device, the virus then sent the ILOVEYOU email and infected attachment to everyone in the user’s Outlook address book, then proceeded to overwrite information on certain file types on the user’s computer. This cost a large amount of information to be lost on the user’s computer!


Why was this so damaging? Since many businesses used Microsoft Outlook at that time, many users had their work devices infected, causing files relating to major business activity to be overwritten. In only 10 days, 45 million computers were infected, and in the end it cost $10 billion in damages. 


The ILOVEYOU virus was created by Onel de Guzman, a 24-year-old computer science student in the Philippines. He originally aimed to deploy it only in Manila, where he lived, but once he removed the geographic restriction on the virus, it unintentionally spread worldwide. He was not prosecuted for the spread of the virus due to the lack of laws against the creation of malware in the Philippines at the time.


2) The Mydoom Worm


The Mydoom Virus first appeared in 2004 and is considered the worst computer virus outbreak in history. Similar to the ILOVEYOU virus, the Mydoom virus is also technically a worm. After infecting a machine or computer, the worm scraped email addresses from the machine, which means that it extracted email addresses from the machine’s contacts or interactions with other machines. Once accessed, the worm replicated itself and sent itself to those email addresses. 


Along with installing itself on these devices, it connected each device into its own botnet. A botnet is a network of devices used to perform a distributed denial of service, or DDoS attack, on a targeted webpage or server. Each computer in the botnet sends multiple requests to the webpage or server, and this overload of requests ends up crashing the site. 


In the end, Mydoom cost $38 billion in damages, which is equivalent to $52.2 billion today. Mydoom still exists today and accounts for 1% of the 3.4 billion phishing emails that are sent each day, which is an extremely large portion of these phishing emails. Today, 1.2 billion copies of the worm are still sent per year, continuing to infect poorly secured systems. In the end, the creator of the worm was never found. 


3) The WannaCry Ransomware


The WannaCry virus is infamous for being one of the first forms of ransomware that spread globally. Ransomware is a form of malware that infects and locks down a computer, encrypting files and information while demanding money from a user in exchange for regaining access to their files. Ransomware is an especially damaging form of malware due to the high ransom prices as well as the uncertainty of whether or not the person behind the ransomware will actually release your files after receiving the money. 


The WannaCry virus was created in 2017, infecting 200,000 computers across 150 countries. Business, hospitals, government organizations, and more were deeply affected by the ransomware, with many systems being taken offline and often forced to be rebuilt if the ransom wasn’t paid.


 In the end, damages totaled up to $4 billion dollars, and the true creator of the virus was never discovered, though the United States officially states that North Korea was behind the attack.


The WannaCry virus is still around today, but most recent software updates for systems patch vulnerabilities typically exploited by the WannaCry virus. The virus highlights the importance of keeping your system up to date - system updates often patch typical vulnerabilities exploited by existing attacks, keeping your computer safe through a simple update.


4) The CryptoLocker Ransomware


CryptoLocker was actually the predecessor to the WannaCry virus, being one of the first forms of ransomware to truly exhibit the power of such an attack. Similar to the WannaCry virus, the CryptoLocker virus installed ransomware on 250,000 machines, impacting an estimated 5,000 companies. According to HP, “The virus’ creators used a worm called the Gameover Zeus botnet to make and send copies of the CryptoLocker virus.” The virus used infected email attachments to download the ransomware on machines and asked for $300 to be paid within a certain amount of time in order to regain access to files. 


In the end, total damages reached an estimated $665 million, but the perpetrator of the attack was identified. According to Malwarebytes, “Evgeniy Bogachev was identified as a leader of cyber criminals based in Russia and Ukraine responsible for the development and operation of both the Gameover Zeus and CryptoLocker schemes,” but despite his indictment, he has remained wanted by the FBI. 


5) The Stuxnet Virus


The Stuxnet virus is a unique virus and quite unlike the ones previously mentioned on this list, but it deserves a spot due to its fame and unique purpose. The Stuxnet virus was created by the United States in a joint operation with Israel in order to target and slow down Iran’s nuclear enrichment program by virtually taking down their nuclear centrifuges. 


Stuxnet was one of the first instances of a cyber weapon being created and deployed, and although it didn’t significantly impact Iran’s operations, it was successful in infiltrating their centrifuges, slowly corrupting their production, and lying virtually undetected for a while until the corruption was detected by workers on the centrifuges. The virus first infiltrated Iran’s systems through a corrupted USB drive and targeted the Windows machines being used. 


The Stuxnet virus did have some adverse effects though, as it accidentally infected a couple of other Windows machines that did not belong to Iran’s centrifuges. Today, the Stuxnet virus has already been publicized and dissected by cybersecurity experts, so it is no longer in use as a form of attack - however, it is an impressive feat taken on by the US government, and remains an example of how cyber intrusions and warfare could expand in the future.



These forms of viruses and malware have definitely made history, but have also inspired heavier initiatives for cybersecurity globally. As cyber threats continue to perpetuate in the future, we are sure to see more threats, but also more innovative solutions to help secure our systems. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more articles!


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