Malware Museum Reminds Us of a More Innocent Time

At the Malware Museum, a site recently launched via the Internet Archive, the golden cyber-oldies that wreaked havoc the 1980s and 1990s get their due. And they can only be described as…totes adorbs!

The Malware Museum is a collection of worms and viruses that were distributed Back in The Day on home computers. Once they infected a system, they would sometimes show animation or messages that a machine had been infected. Almost always these bugs simply replaced the desktop with crude graphics, offering trippy patterns, referencing pop culture themes of the day or slinging slogans. Information exfiltration and remote takeover were unheard-of back then—old school hackers were simply in it for the fun.

Through the use of emulations, and additionally removing any destructive routines within the viruses, the Museum allows site visitors to see what those with infected machines would have seen on the screen. And what a trip down memory lane it is: There’s the CRASH checkerboard pattern of characters and colors; the pixelated political message of an aptly named CoffShop which declares, “Legalize Cannabis”;  the get-out-the-vote-inspired message of Littbrot; and the way pre-Peter Jackson Frodo bug, which emblazons “Frodo Lives!” across the screen in graphics that look straight out of the Atari 2600 universe.

In general, it’s an almost poignant look at a much, much simpler time.

“How benign everything looks—and how distinctly dated. Not just the fonts, graphics, colors, music and cultural references (though those are, indeed, dated) but also the notion of malware as a lark—a vehicle for silly pictures and dumb messages and corny animations,” said Josephine Wolff, assistant professor of public policy and computing security at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, in a column. “Nowadays, we tend to talk about online threats only in the most apocalyptic terms: We worry about power grids being shut off, or banks being compromised, or our computerized cars running away with us.”

She goes on to point out that the Museum really showcases the fact that the internet as we know it today is a recent development. The collection is a portrait of a low-stakes internet that couldn’t offer cybercriminals much of anything other than the kind of thrill that comes from a particularly perfectly executed practical joke.

Back then, people weren’t banking online, using apps to control personal hardware, and certainly weren’t logging their most sensitive financial and personal information into a range of websites in the name of shopping and convenience and doing business. People checked mail; and maybe went into chatrooms hosted on America On-Line. If they were really forward-thinking they picked up a copy of HTML for Dummies and set up a “weblog.” That was about it.

In fact, let’s put it all into perspective. Up until about 2000 email was typically a paid service—AOL was still a big deal. Google was only two years old in 2000 and its usefulness was still being debated. It would be eight years until the debut of the iPhone. And at the turn of the millennium the dot-com bust had blown the Silicon Valley funding landscape to bits, scattering internet monetization to the four winds and leaving many scratching their heads about how, HOW would ever make money.

Perhaps longing for their lost innocence, more than 100,000 visitors have already visited the Museum. And you should too. In this era of cyber-terrorism and international virtual espionage, it’s a welcome respite.

Photo © ScandinavianStock

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