35 years ago, the first piece of malware to ever spread out in the wild came into existence. Dubbed “Elk Cloner” and created by a 15-year old programmer named Rich Skrenta, Elk Cloner was a boot sector virus that targeted the Apple II and spread via floppy disk. Fueled by curiosity as opposed to malice, Skrenta designed Elk Cloner as a fun little prank and a way to immerse himself in the oh so fun world of assembly language.
Once an infected disk was inserted into a machine, a copy of Elk Cloner was placed in memory and would subsequently copy itself onto an uninfected disk. With this clever scheme, the virus was able to easily spread from machine to machine.
When a disk containing the malware was inserted into an Apple II, the fiftieth bootup from disk would present users with the following poem.
Elk Cloner: The program with a personality
It will get on all your disks
It will infiltrate your chips
Yes, it’s Cloner!
It will stick to you like glue
It will modify RAM too
Send in the Cloner!
All in all, it’s rather amusing that the world’s first computer virus that proliferated outside the confines of a research lab was nothing more than a fun teenage prank, a stark contrast to the malware of today which is, by and large, designed to steal money, access private information and destroy sensitive data.
Commenting on the notoriety that Elk Cloner assumed within the Mac community, Skrenta wrote the following on a hacker-oriented Usenet group in 1990. “Amazing. Really amazing. I don’t even have my Apple II anymore, I gave it away. I wrote a lot of stuff for the Apple II–obscure adventure games, a small compiler, a toy multi-user operating system. The stupidest hack I ever coded generated the most interest, and lives on to this day.”