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Practical Techie: Electronic viruses are much like the human versions

The despicable word these days is…virus. There, I said it. Just mentioning the word amid the pandemic makes us stumble and hesitate for fear of catching one just by saying it. It seems viruses are everywhere in our lives

Indicative is that fact that human viruses are too much like computer viruses. Or vice versa. Let’s examine this premise.

E-PANDEMIC — Electronic viruses undergo evolution and natural selection, just like cell-based life, and most of them evolve rapidly. In human terms, when two viruses infect a cell at the same time, they may swap genetic material to make new, “mixed” viruses with unique properties. For example, flu strains can arise this way.

So happens inside an electronic environment.

Although there has been mention of cyber virus as far back as 1949 by the first artificial intelligence scientific community, the first real manifestations of widespread computer malware show its face with the “Creeper” virus in the 1970s. It was first detected as an experimental self-replicating program in university mainframe computer labs. 

In 1982, a program called “Elk Cloner” was the first personal computer virus to appear out of the media labs or research corporations. Then it went… Well, the word again is viral…when a ninth-grade teenager from Pennsylvania, Richard Skrenta created a small virus program for desktop Apple computers that spread via floppy disk and it’s been nonstop since then for creative coders, some out for fun, others as cybercriminals that damage and rob by hacking enormous databases.

HOSTING — A computer virus, also much like a flu virus, is designed to spread from host to host and has the ability to replicate itself in each venue. Similarly, in the same way that viruses cannot reproduce without a host cell, computer viruses cannot reproduce and spread without programming such as a file or document.

It has been estimated that there are more than 380 trillion viruses inhabiting inside humans. But they are not the dangerous ones. More like those that cause the flu or the common cold, or more sinister infections like Ebola or dengue.

Digital viruses can be disguised as attachments of funny images, greeting cards, or audio and video files. They spread through downloads on the Internet and may also be hidden in pirated software you might download.

MALIGNITY — A virus can damage programs, delete files and reformat or erase your hard drive, which results in reduced performance or even crashing your system entirely. Hackers can also use viruses to access your personal information such as credit card numbers, bank information and Social Security numbers, aiming to steal or destroy your data. Their main purpose is usually to send out spam, malware and spyware. In addition to causing chaos, they also attempt to gain access to personal information.

VARIANTS — We see then how a computer virus is a type of computer program that, when executed, it replicates itself by modifying other computer programs and inserting its own code. If this replication succeeds, the affected areas are then said to be “infected” with a computer virus, much like a human counterpart anatomy.

As in the real world, in cyberspace there are variants. Worms spread from computer to computer, but unlike a virus, it has the capability to travel without any help from a person. It does not need a host program, as it is an independent program or code chunk. Therefore, it can run and actively carry out attacks.

And then there is the Trojan variant, which is a type of malicious code or software that looks legitimate but can take control of your computer. A Trojan is designed to damage, disrupt, steal, or in general inflict some other harmful action on your data or network. It acts like a bona fide application or file to trick you.

Interestingly, computer viruses are named after human viruses and likewise, come in all sorts and sizes. Some types are resident virus deep inside your system operations, there are multipartite virus in the entire system or a direct action virus, which is instant damage. Others include, a browser hijacker, an overwrite virus, a web scripting one, a file infector or worst, a full network virus.

MyDoom is the most damaging computer virus ever. Unearthed in January 2004, it was designed to target Microsoft Windows Operating System and caused $38 billion in software devastations, which makes it the most wicked computer virus so far.

BEWARE — Equally, much like virus infect humans by airborne contagion, computers may be contaminated by WiFi networks. Over the past few years, cybersecurity researchers detected malware in routers. One notable example is 2016’s Switcher Trojan, which hijacked Android devices. Yes, cell phones can get very sick too. 

Signs of the flu in your device include taking too long to load, battery drains to fast, abundance of pop-up ads or apps you don’t remember downloading. Another entry point are emails. Virus infected files may be accidentally or purposely attached to a message, or harvest addresses from various sources and append copies of themselves to an email.  

Finally, as there are vaccines for human virus infection, there are antiviral soft- and hardwares for computer disease. But, beware, as it were science fiction, though computer viruses are never naturally occurring because they are always man-made, they can also infect humans.

In 2010, a British scientist, Mark Gasson said he is the first man in the world to become infected with a computer virus. It happened when an electric chip was inserted in his hand containing an e-virus. But’s that another story for now.

Author Details
Author Rafael Matos is a veteran journalist, a professor of digital narratives and university mentor. He may be contacted at cccrafael@gmail.com.

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