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A Day in the Life: Rubenstein vs. “The Brain” Virus

Earlier this year, the Rubenstein Library purchased a KryoFlux floppy-drive controller to help retrieve data from the numerous floppy disks we receive. The University Archives had an obsolete machine with a 5.25″ drive that didn’t work and I hoped the Kryoflux could breathe new life into the drive. After some effort the equipment was installed and the initial self-check tests were successful. A stack of 48 5.25″ floppy disks from the Alvin Roth Papers were close at hand and thus served as the inaugural batch of media to test copying. The copying process was quick, simple, and more importantly, seemed to work. Finally it was time to take KryoFlux’s closing avocation to heart: “enjoy [my] shiny new disk image” and test the results.

Seth and the KryoFlux machine
Seth and the KyroFlux

Mounting the disk copy showed a list of files, but their contents seemed wrong. The documents would start and end at seemingly random points of prose mid-sentence. The seemingly random beginnings and ends were too regular to be a simple case of digital rot. I wondered if I had done the capture wrong (the point of testing) but it might be something else too. I had to dig deeper for more evidence, past the file structure to the data itself for more clues.

In addition to finding problem, I found something much more interesting: “(c) Brain,” a bit of text that tied this disk to a bit of computing history. The Brain virus, written in 1986, is widely accepted as the first MS-DOS virus and, ironically, was an honest mistake. Two brothers, Basit & Amjads, wrote Brain as a means to protect their heart-monitoring software from piracy but ended up having a greater reach than they expected. Just like many others, Brain somehow found its way onto this disk apart from the software it was protecting. Unfortunately this disk doesn’t have a complete copy of the virus; although I am glad there was enough to open the door on an interesting piece of computing history.

New equipment and old media, combined with new puzzles and old viruses, certainly made for an interesting day. While this virus doesn’t pose any real threat to us now, it does serve as a reminder to be careful with the records we receive.

Post contributed by Seth Shaw, Electronic Records Archivist for the Rubenstein Library.