The WannaCry ransomware attack once again brings the need for backup and security solutions into focus, but ransomware is nothing new. The first case of ransomware, chock-full of “truth is stranger than fiction” details, occurred in 1989.
The PC Cyborg Trojan, aka the AIDS Trojan, was created by Dr. Joseph Popp. Whether his motive was Robin Hood-style fundraising for AIDS research (his story) or revenge for a rejected job application at the World Health Organization (per news reports), he wreaked havoc.
Popp sent 20,000 AIDS researchers across the globe a 5.25-inch floppy disk purportedly containing AIDS educational resources. While it did include a survey about AIDS risk, it also included the PC Cyborg Trojan. The ransomware lay dormant for 89 reboots, but upon the 90th reboot, it greeted the user with instructions to turn on the computer’s printer. The printer then produced a demand for $189 payable to a post office box in Panama.
The AIDS Trojan was fairly simple; it made data inaccessible by encrypting filenames. File recovery tools were quickly made available, so Popp did not profit too much, but many researchers still lost years of work.
Popp was apprehended less than two weeks after the virus appeared. Among other erratic behavior, he drew attention at the Amsterdam airport following a WHO gathering, when he wrote “DR. POPP HAS BEEN POISONED” on another passenger’s suitcase. When Popp’s bag was searched, authorities found a “PC Cyborg Corp.” seal. Oops. The FBI arrested Popp in Ohio and extradited him to the UK, where ultimately, he was determined unfit to stand trial.
Following his release, Popp established the Joseph L. Popp Jr. Butterfly Conservatory in Oneonta, New York, which is still in operation. He died in 2007.
Tech Time Warp is a weekly feature that looks back at interesting moments and milestones in tech history.