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How Two Pakistani Brothers Created the First PC Virus

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Before vigilante hackers like Anonymous tamed the Internet, two brothers started their own fight against software piracy. Their weapon: the first PC virus.

In 1986, students at the University of Delaware began experiencing strange symptoms: temporary memory loss, a lethargic drive, and fits of rage. This wasn’t just any old flu—it was the world’s first personal computer virus. Known as Brain, the bug destroyed memory, slowed the hard drive, and hid a short copyright message in the boot sector, introducing the world to two soon-to-be hacker celebrities.

At the time, coders Basit and Amjad Farooq Alvi were just 17 and 24, respectively, running a computer store in Lahore, Pakistan. When they discovered that customers were circulating illegal copies of software they’d written, the brothers decided to retaliate. Brain was their attempt to scare pirates straight, but, as the creators tell it, the virus was never intended to be malicious. In a 2011 interview with F-Secure, a Finnish anti-virus company, the brothers called the bug a “friendly virus,” one that “was not made to destroy any data.” Why else would they have stamped the virus code with their names, their phone numbers, and the address of their shop?

“The idea was that only if the program was illegally copied would the virus load,” Amjad said in a Pakistani TV interview a few years ago. The Alvis also had an ingenious method for keeping track of how far the virus had spread. “[We] had a ‘counter’ in the program, which could keep track of all copies made and when they were made.”

Outbreak

The brothers claim they never knew that Brain would grow into a monster beyond their control. But a 1988 TIME magazine article reveals a more complicated truth: As concerned as they were with piracy of their own software, that didn’t stop them from making and selling bootleg copies of other expensive programs, such as Lotus 1-2-3. In fact, the ethics of their computer vigilantism are a little murky. Computer software isn’t copyright protected in Pakistan, Basit has argued in interviews, so therefore it’s not piracy for people to trade bootleg disks.

Under that rationale, the brothers sold clean bootleg copies to Pakistanis—and virus-infected versions to American students and backpackers. When Americans flew home and attempted to copy the programs, they ended up infecting every floppy disc subsequently inserted into their computers, even discs that had nothing to do with the original program.

Shortly after the University of Delaware outbreak, Brain began popping up at other universities, and then at newspapers. The New York Times reported that a “rogue computer program” had hit the Providence Journal-Bulletin, though the “damage was limited to one reporter losing several months of work contained on a floppy disk.”

While there was never any legal action, the media response was explosive. Basit and Amjad began receiving calls from all over the world. They were as surprised as anyone that their little experiment had traveled so far. After all, unlike today’s computer viruses, which spread at lightning speed, Brain had to transmit itself the old-fashioned way—through human carriers toting around 5.25-inch floppy discs.

But the binary genie was out of the bottle. Today, there are more than a million viruses vying to infect your computer; it’s estimated that half of all PCs are or have been infected. Consumers shell out more than $4 billion per year for software to fight these digital dragons.

As for the brothers, the virus hasn’t been bad for business. Their company, Brain Net, is now the largest Internet service provider in Pakistan. While they maintain that they never meant to hurt anyone, they have nevertheless embraced Brain as a device that exposed the global nature of piracy. “The virus could not have spread unless people were copying the software illegally,” Amjad said during his Pakistani TV interview.

The brothers, who told reporters that they stopped selling contaminated software sometime in 1987, are still based at the same address in Lahore—the one stamped into Brain’s code.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine, available wherever brilliant/lots of magazines are sold. Get a free issue here!

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Getting Calls From Your Own Phone Number? Don't Answer!
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There’s a new phone scam that could affect you, according to Washington’s KIRO 7 News. In addition to keeping your eyes open for calls that come from area codes like 473 or involve people claiming to be Equifax representatives, you now have to watch out for your own phone number.

Scammers are manipulating your phone’s caller ID to make it look like you’re getting a call from your own phone number, then posing as someone from a wireless carrier like AT&T or Verizon. They tell whoever answers the phone that their account has been flagged for security reasons, then ask for the last four digits of that person’s Social Security number. The FCC has been aware of these scams for at least two years, but they seem to be ramping up once again.

In general, you shouldn’t give out any part of your Social Security number over the phone on an incoming call. If you’re suspicious, you can always call your carrier back using the official customer service phone number on their website or on your bill. But it’s best not to pick up at all. If you receive a call from your own number, don’t answer or press any buttons. Instead, file a complaint with the FCC.

[h/t KIRO 7 News]

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Samsung’s Star Wars Vacuums Offer Everything You Want in a Droid
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Hate housecleaning but love Star Wars? Samsung’s got the solution. In anticipation of December’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the newest film in the Star Wars saga, Samsung has transformed a limited number of its VR7000 POWERbot robot vacuum cleaners into two familiar faces from George Lucas’s legendary space opera: a Stormtrooper and Darth Vader (which comes with Wi-Fi connectivity and a remote control).

In order to create a unique device that would truly thrill Star Wars aficionados, Samsung consulted with fans of the film throughout each stage of the process. The result is a pair of custom-crafted robo-vacuums that fill your home with the sounds of a galaxy far, far away as they clean (when you turn Darth Vader on, for example, you'll hear his iconic breathing).

“We are very pleased to be part of the excitement leading up to the release of The Last Jedi and to be launching our limited edition POWERbot in partnership with Star Wars fans,” B.S. Suh, Samsung’s executive vice president, said in a press statement. “From its industry-leading suction power, slim design, and smart features, to the wonderful character-themed voice feedback and sound effects, we are confident the Star Wars limited edition of the VR7000 will be a big hit.”

Be warned that this kind of power suction doesn’t come cheap: while the Stormtrooper POWERbot will set you back $696, the Darth Vader vacuum retails for $798. Who knew the Dark Side was so sparkling clean?


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