The Computer Virus from Lahore

oie_2872139cWpjHHRmSomeone from outside of Pakistan maybe surprised to find out that the first computer virus for the MS-DOS software was written by two Lahori brothers in their late teens. But I bet Pakistanis won’t be surprised at all. It’s in our bones to try things that shake up the system, for better or for worse.

Amjad Farooq Alvi and Basit Farooq Alvi
Amjad Farooq Alvi and Basit Farooq Alvi

Amjad Farooq Alvi and Basit Farooq Alvi were two brothers from Lahore who were self taught computer programmers. They took a bold chance and started a company called “Brain Computer Services”. They sold and wrote basic computer software for PCs. This was in 1982/83 so they were trying to tap in to a market that barely existed anywhere on Earth, let alone in Pakistan. Amjad Farooq Alvi, who was the brains behind “Brain Computer Services”, was very interested in computer technology. He even assembled a small personal computer with a kit from Sinclair Computers (Now called Sinclair Research).

Sinclair ZX81 Computer
Sinclair ZX81 Computer

Back then, programmes ran on computers through Floppy Disks and these were really big, and contained only kilobytes of space. The operating system for PCs of the time, was MS-DOS and the Alvi brothers, while exploring this software discovered a flaw. It didn’t offer copyright protection. People could just copy any software on to their disks and no one would be penalized. So they decided to write their own little code that used to detect when someone copied software to their floppy disks. They called it “Brain”. And it saved every serial number of every computer that copied the software. It also slowed down the floppy disk and made 7 kB of space unavailable to DOS (that was huge back then). But the “virus” didn’t destroy or harm any piece of software in the PC or the floppy.

The "Brain" Virus
The “Brain” Virus

The Alvi brothers originally wrote “Brain” in 1986 to protect a heart monitoring software they wrote themselves for the IBM PC. It was being used in a small hospital in Quetta according to Amjad Farooq Alvi, so you can imagine his surprise when he received a call from Miami University, Florida about his “virus”. It was a student who had discovered a copy of the “Brain” virus inside her floppy disk.

The message inside the virus
The message inside the virus

And the virus had come with a message. You see the Alvi brothers had put their names, address and phone numbers so that people could call them to “vaccinate” their PCs.

Welcome to the Dungeon (c) 1986 Basit & Amjads (pvt) Ltd VIRUS_SHOE RECORD V9.0 Dedicated to the dynamic memories of millions of viruses who are no longer with us today – Thanks GOODNESS!! BEWARE OF THE er..VIRUS : this program is catching program follows after these messages….$#@%$@!!

Welcome to the Dungeon © 1986 Brain & Amjads (pvt). BRAIN COMPUTER SERVICES 730 NIZAM BLOCK ALLAMA IQBAL TOWN LAHORE-PAKISTAN PHONE: 430791,443248,280530. Beware of this VIRUS…. Contact us for vaccination…

Before they knew it, the Alvi brothers were famous. Their story spread and they kept getting calls from around the world from people who were either curious or wanted their PCs disinfected. In 1988, TIME magazine published a story on them called “Technology: You Must Be Punished” in which they were appreciated as well as criticized for their work.

The TIME Magazine issue containing the article on "Brain", September 26, 1988
The TIME Magazine issue containing the article on “Brain”, September 26, 1988

Today the Alvi brothers run the same business, now called “Brain Telecommunications”. They say that their motivation was never to harm anyone and that “Brain” was a “friendly” virus but they do acknowledge that many viruses that exist today may have been inspired by their attempt. On the flip side their virus has given birth to a whole new software category, the “Anti Virus”. Indeed, John McAfee identifies the “Brain” virus as his motivation to build his virus scanning software.

Today “Brain” is officially recognized as the first “PC” virus and for better or for worse, it’s part of our legacy in the world.

By Yousuf Mehmood

NSS-Director Publications

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