30 years ago today, the first virus hit IBM PCs and it was aimed at pirates

Brain. Picture: Avinash Meetoo/Wikimedia Commons

30 years ago, a couple of brothers from Lahore, Pakistan, released “(c)Brain”.

It’s considered the first virus to move outside a lab and into IBM PCs. (The first to infect a PC attacked the Apple II.)

Unlike modern viruses, which are largely created for either political purposes or to extort money from those infected, Brain served a somewhat nobler cause – at least, according to its creators.

The brothers, Basit Farooq Alvi and Amjad Farooq Alvi, had developed medical software used to track a heart monitoring program. (The Alvi brothers’ dad was a doctor.)

They wanted to protect it from being copied and saw the best opportunity lay in the fact that the start of a floppy disk contained instructions for startup. So they had a go at altering those instructions.

Here’s the message you would have seen in your boot sector in 1986 if you tried a bit of the old piracy on some Alvi software:

Welcome to the Dungeon (c) 1986 Basie & Amends (pvt) Ltd VIRUS_SHOE RECORD V9.0 Dedicated to the dynamic memories of millions of viruses who are no longer with us today – Thanks GOODNESS!! BEWARE OF THE er..VIRUS : this program is catching program follows after these messages….$#@%[email protected]!!

The real boot sector would have been shifted to another sector and marked as bad, and your disk label changed to ©Brain.

Your floppy disk drive would slow down, and, such as in the case reported by the New York Times, a journalist might lose seven kilobytes of memory, or the equivalent of several months of notes.

The only way Brain could be transmitted was physically – you actually had to have to software, or a copy of the software, in your hard drive to even be at risk.

They even put a counter in the program, so they could see how far the virus had spread.

When they started receiving calls from all over the world, and making headlines in the New York Times, the Alvi brothers claim they were as surprised as anyone.

In the years since, they’ve faced down allegations that the virus was deliberately malicious. But they point to the fact they stamped the code with their name, phone numbers and addresses, which would make them fairly average, and easily caught, hackers.

They also argue that information was stored because that’s how you got rid of the virus – by calling the brothers and confessing to your crime, and asking them nicely to fix it.

Nowadays, viruses cause about $4 billion worth of damage each year, and rising. Piracy has become such a huge problem, it’s necessitated the development on an entire industry based on giving away music, movies and games for next to nothing.

And the Alvi brothers are still in Pakistan, where their company, Brain Net, is now the largest ISP in the country.