Could computers get a virus that’s as contagious and difficult to eliminate as the coronavirus? © Getty Images

Could computers get a virus that’s as contagious and difficult to eliminate as the coronavirus?

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Asked by: Robin Bendon, Wrexham

Our computers have already suffered the equivalent of SARS-CoV-2, several times over. Back in 2000, when the internet was still young, a virus called ‘ILOVEYOU’ emerged. People received an innocuous-looking email, with an attachment file LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.TXT.vbs. But opening the attachment released not a declaration of adoration, but a ‘worm’ (a type of virus) that overwrote various filetypes, and emailed copies of itself to everyone in the user’s contact list.


The virus spread around the world in hours, causing an estimated $15bn in damage due to lost data and time. Because it was easy to modify, it also ‘mutated’ quickly, and more than 25 versions were soon circulating. ILOVEYOU was not the first or the last computer virus – or even the worst. A worm called ‘Mydoom’ holds that record – first sighted in 2004, it infected 16-25 per cent of emails at its peak, and cost over $38bn.

As a result of these computer virus pandemics, technology companies have stepped up their security game. ‘Inoculation’ is provided by frequently updated antivirus software, which detects and prevents infections from the latest viruses. ‘Face masks’ are provided by firewalls that only let safe network communication through to your computer. And ‘social distancing’ is provided by security mechanisms called ‘sandboxes’, which isolate programs from each other and prevent any from infecting each other or the host machine.

Every modern computer now has these protections, so a computer virus is less likely to spread as quickly as the coronavirus did, and even less likely to cause such widespread disruption to society.

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Dr Peter Bentley is a computer scientist and author who is based at University College London. He is the author of books including 10 Short Lessons in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics and Digital Biology: How nature is transforming our technology and our lives.


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