TWENTY-FIVE years ago today, two brothers in Pakistan came up with a new and novel way to catch out software pirates.
As it turned out, they also gave birth to one of the greatest annoyances in the modern world.
“Brain”, considered to be the first major personal computer virus, was created on January 19, 1986, by Basit and Amjad Farooq Alvi at their computer shop in Lahore, Pakistan.
From there the program spread across the world — one infected floppy disk at a time.
At its peak Brain had even reached the offices of a government department in Canada, on the other side of the globe.
To this day there is speculation as to why Basit and Amjad created the virus. It appears to have been a way to stop software pirates.
“(Amjat) wanted a way to detect piracy, to catch someone who copies,” Basit told TIME in 1988. His brother had written several custom software programs which were being copied without permission.
However it seemed a strange excuse. The brothers were themselves involved in making and selling pirated software, which was not illegal in Pakistan at the time.
“They would be selling copies of DOS, Word, commercial software, basically for slightly over the cost of the media,” said Robert Slade, a senior instructor at the International Information System Security Certification Consortium.
“Of course they weren’t paying any licence fees themselves.”
Mr Slade said that even if controlling piracy was in fact the goal, the brothers were on the wrong track.
“A virus is not a good way to control anything, because the virus itself spreads far and wide without any reference to the original media and programs they were selling,” he said.
“Because this was a boot sector infector, it just spread on to any floppy disk that had been put into an infected machine.”
Brain was the first of what became known as “stealth viruses”. Because most 1980s computers only had tiny internal hard drives — or none at all — everything had to be run from floppy disks.
Brain would bury itself in the part of the disk necessary for running programs and infect any computer it was inserted into.
It would then sit in the computer’s memory and infect new disks inserted into that machine as well.
Mr Slade said the virus had some sophisticated features, such as being able to “redirect” itself to avoid detection when you went looking for it.
However why the brothers would have bothered with the deception is also a mystery, because the virus was made other changes that were highly visible.
When the virus infected a floppy disk it would rename the boot sector “Brain”. As soon as users ran a directory listing, it would be obvious their disk was infected.
Roger Thompson, one of the first people in the world to discover Brain and an early Australian pioneer of anti-virus software, said he stumbled across the program almost by accident.
“I’d heard about these new things called viruses, and thought I had one,” said Mr Thompson.
“I actually didn’t, but it started me thinking about them, and how I would find them, and the first one I found was indeed Brain.”
While Brain was relatively harmless, it was the mother of all viruses — the hub from which a host of malicious others were spawned.
Mr Thompson’s anti-virus program “Virus Buster” was used as the antidote for the “Ohio”, “Den Zuk”, “Stoned” and “Jerusalem” viruses which hit computers shortly after Brain.
“As I recall, we decided to not bother trying to cure Brain,” he said.
“It was only a floppy infector, and it was easy to copy anything off the floppy that you cared about, and just reformat the floppy or throw it away.”
Mr Thompson said it was the generation of viruses after Brain which turned malicious.
“Jerusalem was destructive. On any Black Friday (Friday the 13th), it would delete any programs that were run, instead of infecting them, so it simply couldn’t be ignored,” he said.
“To do it by hand, you had to be able to run a dos utility called FDisk, which was beyond Joe Average.”
Virus Buster earned Mr Thompson a 60 per cent share in the market, allowing him to move his family to the US where he became a leader in anti-virus solutions.
Mr Thompson currently works as the chief research officer for AVG, one of the world’s biggest anti-virus software companies, founded in the Czech Republic.