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I am wondering how this was possible. I remember my cousin used to use the family computer and it was infected with viruses just by browsing the internet. I recall a bunch of our desktop icons turned into ads for online casinos, and every time we opened internet explorer we were bombarded with ad popups.

This was back in the late 90s/early 2000s.

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Browsers have remote code execution (RCE) vulnerabilities that allow attackers to run code on the system when the user just visits a website (drive-by-download attacks). This is not just in history, but such vulnerabilities have been found even in 2023.

The browsers these days have sandboxed renderer processes; a vulnerability in the renderer must be chained with a sandbox escape vulnerability to be this effective. In the era of Windows 98 this kind of countermeasures didn't exist, so compromises were common.

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    Another important factor was that there was no auto update mechanisms, and downloading large software packages was problematic. In 2000 people had 56k modem, and a Netscape installer was 45 minutes to download. Old vulnerabilities was thus known, but rarely patched by end users.
    – vidarlo
    Oct 19, 2023 at 8:05

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