When the first PC viruses appeared in the 1980s, they not only tampered with machine systems, but also filled the screens of home computers with technicolor text and flashy graphics or animations. Such programs are now artifacts of the internet, replaced over the years by much more complex yet less visually rich malware, but a select number from the 1980s and 1990s — the de facto golden age of virus graphics — are now preserved online in the Malware Museum.
Hosted on the Internet Archive, the museum was formed by computer security expert Mikko Hypponen and is fully interactive, allowing visitors to safely run and experience this malicious software through exact emulations that strip them of any destructive capability. They represent a peculiar collection of early internet-based design, created to do harm and experiment with the technologies of the day.
“Many old-school virus writers were using their viruses as a means of expression,” Hypponen told Hyperallergic. “That’s why we get all these displays of animations, sound, and pictures. Some would call it art.”
Similar to teletext art, much of early malware presented blocky visuals, with hackers restricted by the primitive possibilities of code and their own handling of it. Meant to alert computer users that their systems were under attack, most were text-heavy, but many were still quite dynamic, invading a screen with, for example, a stream of rainbow colors (the LSD Virus), a blinking heart (the Zhu Virus), or a character from the video game Bad Street Brawler (the Walker Virus). The Marine Virus simply presented the serene beach scene of a floating sailboat while it brutally overrode all the files on your hard drive. Others featured sound, such as the Techno Virus, which played a beat of beeps to deliver a headache as it corrupted computers.
As such cheeky messages suggest, most people writing viruses 25 years ago were just doing it to entertain themselves and because they found the process interesting.
“Most early virus writers were just teenage boys, doing it for fun,” Hypponen said. “For many, the motive was to follow how far their virus would spread.” Nowadays, he explained, most people who code malware are driven by money, creating keyloggers to steal credit card information or banking trojans capable of hacking large financial institutions. Accompanying such shifts in intention from mocking to exploiting computer users was a decline in the focus on the aesthetics of malware; according to Hypponen, such “old happy hackers” who sent creative viruses into cyberspace have pretty much disappeared from the digital landscape.
“I think it’s crucial we try to save this important chapter of [the] internet’s history,” he said. “If we’re not going to save it, who will? Now that we have the Malware Museum hosted by Internet Archive, we hope it will be available for many, many future generations. Hopefully it will be online forever.”