It’s 1990. I’m in year 8, and as I’m walking across the dismal asphalt quadrangle toward the ash-grey public-school building I can see something is wrong. Shane Cooper is yelling something at me and laughing. He’s shouting to be heard: whatever it is he’s telling me, he wants everyone to know.
“You’re Infected! You’re infected! A Virus.”
He’s taunting me. I can feel the faces of the schoolyard swivelling toward me.
“1990. This is back before public internet existed. Before ISP’s. Shane, and a few others of us at school were swapping pirated floppy discs. 5 and a ¼ inches of excitement. We’re mates. Spacequest, stuff like that. I run it on my x86 at home.”
As geeks, we’re largely invisible in the overall social structure, but I’m big news in geekland. I know stuff about computers that isn’t general knowledge. I can write BASIC. I’ve hex-edited my name into the copyright strings of my command interpreter, by editing the disk sectors with DiskEdit.
At home, I get my first piece of antivirus software: virus scan for DOS. The x86 had no permanent storage at all. No hard disc. That fact changed my life. The virus had been transmitted through my entire collection of 5 ¼” discs.
I disinfected all my 5 and a ¼ inch floppy discs.
Well, all except one. To this day I don’t know why I did it. I had a floppy disc storage box – like an index card file system. And at the very back, I left one infected disc. Like an unexploded landmine.
Looking back, now I realise this is one in a series of events that changed my life. Because my 8086 had no permanent storage at all. No hard disc. It meant I was never afraid to ‘trash’ my computer, since a ‘trashing’ was never persistent. I could simply toss the trashed floppy disk, reboot clean, and go again.
This is the moment is where it all started with me and security testing. The moment I quietly slid that dull grey object into the back of my filing box. Curiosity, hooking me in.
It sat there for a while. I don’t know. Weeks, Months. Until, feeling the pull of curiosity, one morning I pulled it out again. I had been turning the problem over in my mind. I thought the virus must live in the boot sector somewhere.
I run PCTools Deluxe DiskEdit and paged through the hex of the boot sector, no longer just a computer user. Looking for something malevolent. I don’t know what. DiscEdit gives you two panes: In the centre: 16 columns of pure hex. And on the right, the ASCII equivalent. Black on white, like in the movies.
There. I couldn’t believe it. Right there, on the right-hand side:
Welcome to the Dungeon
© 1986 Basit & Amjad (pvt) LTD
Brain Computer Services
730 Nizam Block Allama
Ph: 430971, 443248, 280530
Beware of this VIRUS....
Contact us for vaccination...
A message from the authors… From Pakistan! In a time before internet, this piece of self-replicating code had taken four years to jump from floppy disk, to floppy disk. Probably hitching rides with people in cars. Buses. Trains. Planes. All the way to the middle-class suburbs of Geelong. My bedroom. These guys had reached around from the edges of the world, and were talking to me.
What I didn’t know then, that I know now: The brothers in Lahore had started two industries: the virus industry and the antivirus industry. And the arms race between them had begun.