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Something wicked: The 10 scariest computer viruses of all time

The dreary winter months are approaching, and little ghosts and goblins are starting to crawl from their haunts. With the spooky Halloween season about to get into full swing, we thought we might help get into the mood with a look at the 10 most frightening viruses of all time.

Hide your hard drives, lock up your files and make sure your AV shields are at maximum power as we enter…the dark realm of computer programs gone bad.

10. It Came From Above! OK, so the virus that showed up in ground systems connected with the U.S. fleet of combat drones probably isn’t going to be much of a danger to anyone’s PC. But we’re talking scary, and it’s the thought that counts: The thought of malicious code connected even with ground systems involved with so much destructive power is enough to put a little lump in the back of your throat. A typical virus might erase your e-mail. But if UAVs themselves ever got infected, they could put a hellfire missile up your tailpipe.

9. The Creeper. Even the name is scary. Creeper wasn’t actually all that malignant, and it only affected TENEX operating systems in the 1970s. But it was the first real worm, and a program with an even scarier name, the Reaper, was created to kill it. Don’t fear the reaper? If you were a bit of Creeper code, you probably would.

8. The Undead. As Stephen King once said, sometimes they come back. Stoned.Angelina had a relatively minor history of destruction back in 1994, and the anti-virus programs of the time wiped it out rather easily, or so we thought. But instead of going quietly, it hid buried on floppy disks and eventually in the darkest corners of the Internet, watching and waiting for a sign. That sign was Windows Vista. Suddenly, in 2007, Stoned.Angelina came back to infect more than 100,000 PCs running the new operating system. Microsoft’s Vista just happened to have the same flaw that the undead virus had exploited before, and it came roaring back to life like a zombie from a B-grade horror movie. It was quickly destroyed after its second big splash — or so we think. (Insert evil laughter now.)

7. Nuclear Terrorism, For Good? Stuxnet probably didn’t affect anyone reading this article. It was a virus allegedly created by the U.S. government — or Israel, but to date it’s all speculation — to do one thing: cripple the Iranian nuclear program. Stuxnet probably affected 20 computers at most in the entire world. It found systems running a Siemens programmable logic controller, which is used only in heavy industrial applications, most notably with centrifuges for nuclear materials. It causes the engine to rotate at the wrong speed, which breaks the machines and ruins their work. There are those who say that hurting Iran’s nuclear ambitions is a good thing, and I’ll not argue with them, but any virus that messes with nukes isn’t all that safe. We all know where the road paved by good intentions leads…

6. Beauty and the Beast. You all know the tale of Medusa. She looked pretty from a distance but when you got close a bunch of snakes came out and she looked so horrible that it turned people to stone. That was the principle behind the Anna Kournikova virus in 2001. E-mail would be delivered that offered a picture of the tennis beauty. But what really happened was that a worm was installed on your computer. When most people want to see Anna Kournikova, that desire is coming from a completely different part of the brain than the fear center — at least I hope. Mixing the two just seems wrong, unless you’re watching one of those terribly bad slasher flicks.

5. Horrible B.O. Back Orifice is not really a virus per se, but it’s close enough and damaging enough that it makes the list at our halfway point of scary programs. It basically gives remote access privileges to someone at another computer. On the surface, this could actually be a good thing, if you are say, trying to provide tech support to your grandmother. But programs that install BO maliciously without a user’s knowledge  are the problem. Once inside your system, the controller can do anything they want short of making you cluck like a chicken.

4. Merry Frickin’ Christmas. OK, wrong holiday, but it brings up a not-so-nice greeting card many people received in December of 1987. The Christmas Tree EXEC program paralyzed a lot of internal networks. When an infected computer booted up, a crude Christmas tree was drawn on their screens. The program told people not to worry and to simply type "Christmas." But that actually launched part of the worm, which sent itself to a user’s contact list. So much for peace and love over the holidays. Little known fact: The virus was actually called CHRISTMA, because IBM PCs only supported eight-character file names at the time. So Merry Christma, everyone!

3. Red Alert! Now we are getting truly scary, as in viruses that affected computers on a massive global scale. This is not on par with a typical zombie outbreak. These next viruses are full-scale "War of the Worlds" stuff. The Code Red virus was one of the first to successfully target Web servers running IIS in 2001. Leaving individual users largely untouched, it sought bigger prey. And it did very well, infecting over 350,000 computers at its peak. It did different things on different days of the month, but from the 20th through the 27th, it was programmed to attack fixed IP addresses, including that of the White House. And it defaced websites, adding “Hacked By the Chinese!” to their main pages. This may be one instance where the Chinese were not actually responsible for an Internet hacking, as the culprit was never found. The world may never know.

2. My Not-So-Sweet Melissa. The Allman Brothers liked to sing about sweet Melissa, but they probably didn’t have the Melissa virus of 1999 in mind. Named after a two-toed sloth at the New York Zoo, probably one of the least frightening animals on Earth, the Melissa virus was not really a true virus, but it sure caused more damage than almost any other. Spread by e-mail, it simply sent itself to the first 50 addresses in a user’s contact list. And then they sent it the first 50 on each of those contact lists, often going back to the original person. And so on and so on through new users and loops of the same users until mail servers worldwide ground to a halt under the strain. In several locations, the still-young Internet lost its ability to send e-mail. In this case, the hacker, David L. Smith, was caught and convicted. He got 10 years in prison but was released after 20 months and agreed to help the FBI track down Jan de Wit, the infamous creator of the No. 6 scary virus on our list, the Anna Kournikova worm.

1. You Give Love A Bad Name. The worst virus of all time used a power that has conquered and baffled humans since the beginning of time: love. Everybody wants to be loved, and an e-mail from a secret admirer is a nice surprise, right? Not when it’s really the I Love You virus, which racked up an impressive kill tally of tens of millions of computers in the year 2000. 

This killer virus had it all. It was self-replicating. It enticed users with social engineering tools to open it up. It made very bad changes to computers that prevented them from working properly. It copied parts of itself to the root directories of systems to prevent removal. It caused 5 billion dollars in damages and forced the CIA and the Pentagon to turn off their e-mail systems to keep them safe from the infection, like the last stage of some horrible outbreak movie.

It was the star of the nightly news, getting top-story billing nearly every day for weeks. A massive global investigation led to the arrest of two students from the Philippines who unsuccessfully tried to destroy evidence by dumping computers into a canal near their house. However, because virus writing was not technically illegal in the Philippines at the time, they were released without charge. And that might be the scariest fact of all!  

 

Reader Comments

Thu, Jan 2, 2014

I believe "tennis beauty" was shown on a late episode of Friends! XD

Fri, Oct 21, 2011 Jeff Earth

Stuxnet was mentioned....It does surprise me that nothing was mentioned since 2000, being that we have had some significant ones in the 10+ years since then...

Tue, Oct 18, 2011

My computer was infected with the Microsoft Windows virus and has never function quite right since.

Tue, Oct 18, 2011 Greg

I don't see it at all in this list, but the worst one I ever saw wiped the BIOS chip, instantly freezing and completely killing PCs. I was hit by that one - maybe late 90s? Only an off-board reprogramming of the chip with the correct BIOS could recover such a machine. I also got hit by another that erased the partition table. Luckily I had a backup of my partition table (ok, so I'm not a run-of-the-mill user). IMO, both of these viruses/worms were far more destructive than anything in this list.

Mon, Oct 17, 2011

You left out Jack the Ripper!

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