Logo: University of Southern California

Computer Virus: An Origin Story

Alumnus Fred Cohen coined the term in a USC Viterbi class back in 1983
By: Arash Zandi
August 11, 2014 —

Viruses are programs that reproduce.

Computer viruses can cause a lot of stress, especially when they delete precious data, photos, music, and to that effect, even memories from your devices. Three decades ago, though, these malicious defects didn’t have a name. A USC Viterbi graduate student and his professor gave them one.

The year was 1983. USC Viterbi student Fred Cohen was in a class taught by Computer Science Professor Leonard Adleman, who was talking about a malicious program that was put in a timesharing system at UCLA.

“All of a sudden, the proverbial light came up above my head like in a cartoon, an ‘aha’ moment,” Cohen said.

Fred Cohen

He realized that when a program placed a copy of itself into other programs, it would spread like a disease. Cohen shared his observation with Adleman, who suggested that he call it a computer virus. “Once Adleman came up with the name, I started working on it and writing on it,” Cohen said.

Once he came up with the name, Cohen wanted to see a virus in practice to test his theory on how it spread. Cohen conducted a test to demonstrate the virus on one of the computers where he was a systems administrator to see how fast it would spread. Then he started trying to find defenses for it, a line of work he continued until 1992.

Born in 1956, Cohen received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from USC Viterbi and has written over 50 professional publications and 11 books. Cohen won the prestigious “Techno-Security Industry Professional of the Year” Award in 2002 and is one of the most trusted individuals in the information protection field in the world today.

He lives in Pebble Beach, Calif., with his wife, two dogs and a cat; and provides research and advisory services for the U.S. government and leading firms across all industries.

“The first virus scanner, if you want to call it that, was something that I wrote which looked for copies of my viruses on my computer. I understood that it would not be an effective defense, because I could just keep writing more viruses and could guarantee that the scanner would always produce an unlimited number of false positives, false negatives or run forever,” Cohen said.

But Cohen emphasizes that not all viruses are bad, as he believes in the existence of “benevolent viruses.” The concept may sound contradictory to many, but Cohen said it’s not.

An example of a benevolent virus would be maintenance viruses that simply automate the work that systems administrators would otherwise do manually, such as deleting old files, clearing up disk space and checking for errors. Cohen wrote a paper them in 1991 entitled A Case for Benevolent Viruses.

“In the case of computer viruses, we have not adequately considered the potential for beneficial uses…Perhaps we will even learn something about ourselves and our environment through this effort, and perhaps we will not, but I don’t think we can afford to ignore the implications,” Cohen wrote.