How Two Pakistani Brothers Created the First PC Virus

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.”


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.

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Apple Wants to Patent a Keyboard You’re Allowed to Spill Coffee On

In the future, eating and drinking near your computer keyboard might not be such a dangerous game. On March 8, Apple filed a patent application for a keyboard designed to prevent liquids, crumbs, dust, and other “contaminants” from getting inside, Dezeen reports.

Apple has previously filed several patents—including one announced on March 15—surrounding the idea of a keyless keyboard that would work more like a trackpad or a touchscreen, using force-sensitive technology instead of mechanical keys. The new anti-crumb keyboard patent that Apple filed, however, doesn't get into the specifics of how the anti-contamination keyboard would work. It isn’t a patent for a specific product the company is going to debut anytime soon, necessarily, but a patent for a future product the company hopes to develop. So it’s hard to say how this extra-clean keyboard might work—possibly because Apple hasn’t fully figured that out yet. It’s just trying to lay down the legal groundwork for it.

Here’s how the patent describes the techniques the company might use in an anti-contaminant keyboard:

"These mechanisms may include membranes or gaskets that block contaminant ingress, structures such as brushes, wipers, or flaps that block gaps around key caps; funnels, skirts, bands, or other guard structures coupled to key caps that block contaminant ingress into and/or direct containments away from areas under the key caps; bellows that blast contaminants with forced gas out from around the key caps, into cavities in a substrate of the keyboard, and so on; and/or various active or passive mechanisms that drive containments away from the keyboard and/or prevent and/or alleviate containment ingress into and/or through the keyboard."

Thanks to a change in copyright law in 2011, the U.S. now gives ownership of an idea to the person who first files for a patent, not the person with the first working prototype. Apple is especially dogged about applying for patents, filing plenty of patents each year that never amount to much.

Still, they do reveal what the company is focusing on, like foldable phones (the subject of multiple patents in recent years) and even pizza boxes for its corporate cafeteria. Filing a lot of patents allows companies like Apple to claim the rights to intellectual property for technology the company is working on, even when there's no specific invention yet.

As The New York Times explained in 2012, “patent applications often try to encompass every potential aspect of a new technology,” rather than a specific approach. (This allows brands to sue competitors if they come out with something similar, as Apple has done with Samsung, HTC, and other companies over designs the company views as ripping off iPhone technology.)

That means it could be a while before we see a coffee-proof keyboard from Apple, if the company comes out with one at all. But we can dream.

[h/t Dezeen]

Google Adds 'Wheelchair Accessible' Option to Its Transit Maps

Google Maps is more than just a tool for getting from Point A to Point B. The app can highlight the traffic congestion on your route, show you restaurants and attractions nearby, and even estimate how crowded your destination is in real time. But until recently, people who use wheelchairs to get around had to look elsewhere to find routes that fit their needs. Now, Google is changing that: As Mashable reports, the company's Maps app now offers a wheelchair accessible option to users.

Anyone with the latest version of Google Maps can access the new feature. After opening the app, just enter your starting point and destination and select the public transit choices for your trip. Maps will automatically show you the quickest routes, but the stations it suggests aren't necessarily wheelchair accessible.

To narrow down your choices, hit "Options" in the blue bar above the recommended routes then scroll down to the bottom of the page to find "Wheelchair accessible." When that filter is checked, your list of routes will update to only show you bus stops and subways that are also accessible by ramp or elevator where there are stairs.

While it's a step in the right direction, the new accessibility feature isn't a perfect navigation tool for people using wheelchairs. Google Maps may be able to tell you if a station has an elevator, but it won't tell you if that elevator is out of service, an issue that's unfortunately common in major cities.

The wheelchair-accessible option launched in London, New York, Tokyo, Mexico City, Boston, and Sydney on March 15, and Google plans to expand it to more transit systems down the road.

[h/t Mashable]


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