Michelangelo and Melissa, the mass hysteria computer viruses
One March many years ago, when the IT industry was rather different compared to the modern one, two computer viruses brought panic because of an out-of-scale media attention. Born out of a time when the “malware” (an unknown term then) creators were largely interested in fame more than money, the viruses ended up making substantial damages valued (in one of the two cases) more than 1 billion dollars.
The 6th of March 1992 was the day of Michelangelo, a boot virus designed to infect the hard disk’s Master Boot Record and the boot sector of floppy disks belonging to the seminal Stoned family. The boot virus breed recently evolved into boot rootkits or bootkits, but 22 years ago the techniques employed by this kind of virus were still pretty limited: after infecting the PC Michelangelo went memory resident and modified the Interrupt 12 to avoid being overwritten, activating its destructive payload if the system date matched the birthday of Michelangelo Buonarroti (March 6).
In that date Michelangelo would have overwritten the first 100 sectors of the HDD with null characters, essentially making data and files present on the disk unrecoverable. Combined with the fact that an OEM manufacturer shipped (in January 1992) 500 PCs infected by the virus and another one announced a plan to sell its own PCs with an antivirus installed by default, this potential ability to permanently damage DOS-based systems turned Michelangelo into a front-page news and brought panic during prime time television. The PCs “destroyed” by the terrible boot virus would have been millions, stated the not-so-wise “journalists” ill advised by sellers of antivirus software.
Of course, at the end of the panic period the actual damages were extremely low compared to the forecasts and Michelangelo went down in history as another case of technology ignorance spread by the idiots of mass communication. Seven years later, in 1999, another computer virus outbreak reached planetary proportions in a world where Internet and the Web were being adopted by users and the most popular PC operating system was Microsoft Windows.
The 26th of March 1999 marked the spread of Melissa, a Visual Basic macro virus designed to “parasitize” .doc document files created with Microsoft Word (Word 97, Word 2000) and to send itself to the first 50 e-mail addresses available in the Outlook (97, 98, 2000) address book of the infected system. Unlike Michelangelo, the Melissa mass-mailing virus wasn’t created to cause damage but only to spread around the Internet through an infected .doc attachment containing a list of 80 pornographic Web sites.
Compared to Michelangelo, however, the impact of Melissa arrival was felt all around the world: the mass-mailing capabilities of the macro virus caused its out-of-scale spreading (100,000 computers and 300 different organizations affected), while the infection economic consequences (networks jammed by a downright DoS attack, systems crashed and companies closed down) were estimated in 80 million dollars in North America and in 1.1 billion dollars worldwide. The media panic, in this case at least, was based on true facts.
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