Dr. Fred Cohen

Fred Cohen first presented his ideas to a graduate class in information security in 1983, and history credits his seminar advisor, Len Adleman, with the assignment of the term "virus" to Cohen's concept. Fred did extensive theoretical research, as well as setting up and performing numerous practical experiments regarding viral-type programs. Cohen's first virus paper was published in 1984, and his dissertation was presented in 1986 as part of the requirements for a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California. This work is foundational, and any serious student of viral programs disregards it at his or her own risk. His major contributions lie in the foundations of basic theory and analysis in virus research, and the development of the defensive techniques that have historically been most effective and are now the most widely implemented. His work experimentally demonstrated and theoretically resolved vital issues.

(Four years after some programming undertaken as a student job, Marc Andreessen owns Netscape. After six years of unsupported research and seven more years of watching other people use his ideas in their products, Fred gets the occasional royalty cheque from Wiley. Life, as Jimmy Carter observed, is not fair.)

Dr. Cohen's definition of a computer virus as "a program that can 'infect' other programs by modifying them to include a possibly evolved version of itself" is generally accepted as a standard. On occasion it presents problems with the acceptance of, say, boot-sector viral programs and entities such as the Internet/UNIX/Morris Worm. It is not, however, fair to Dr. Cohen to hold him responsible for the misuse of his work by others. The definition given above was an attempt, in the 1984 paper, to express a mathematical concept in English. The English version is only an approximation.

For some reason Fred Cohen's work was never given the credit or value it deserved. From the very beginning, systems administrators and the security community have seen his work as either negative or as an academic curiosity. (In addition, viruses have advanced the plot of many a book or movie, and not once has Cohen received a royalty cheque from Hollywood. Viruses even save the world on occasion, but does anyone phone Fred and thank him? Noooo.) This situation is decidedly odd, but has not, perhaps, been helped any by the perception of Cohen as a bit of a grouch. Fred's friends, however, argue against the negative characterization, noting that he has a very keen sense of humour. This last is amply demonstrated in "A Short Course on Computer Viruses".

Fred is the originator of the phrase "Mr. Slade's lists" in reference to my various collections of review, contact, and BBS information.

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