Truth About Computer Security Hysteria
Michelangelo Fiasco: a Historical TimelineRob Rosenberger, Vmyths co-founder
Monday, 1 June 1992
1/28/92: Osicom Technologies announces it will bundle an antivirus package with all personal computers.
1/29/92: UPI reporter Jack Lesar files a newswire saying "the Michelangelo Virus could erase data from hard disks of hundreds of thousands of computers around the world on Michelangelo's birthday, March 6." Winn Schwartau, executive director of the Nashville-based International Partnership Against Computer Terrorism, attributes magical powers to the virus: "`It's usually been a rule that a virus can't be propagated by just reading from a data disk. But in this case it appears to no longer be true,' said Schwartau. `You may consciously just be reviewing data, not moving data, but the virus is hidden and executable and it's doing its thing.' "
Interestingly, the report continues: "[John] McAfee said the Michelangelo Virus is the third most common in terms of reports of infection. It accounts for 14 percent of infection reports — a total of about 6,000 last year. And he notes the figure represents the number of sites at which infection has been reported — each of which may have one machine, or 100."
2/11/92: Reuters reporter Wilson da Silva files the first newswire saying the Michelangelo virus resides on "millions of personal computers around the world." The estimate — five million worldwide — comes from John McAfee. In the story, researcher Wayne Boxall of Australia's Computer Virus Information Group erroneously states the virus spreads via computer bulletin boards.
2/13/92: Microcom announces it has released a free program to disinfect the Michelangelo virus. The program also detects (but does not disinfect) 668 other viruses.
2/17/92: Washington Post reporter John Burgess writes a Michelangelo story questioning gigantic estimates and the role of people who made those claims. "It remains unclear whether large numbers of computers contain undetected copies of the virus, though estimates of millions of machines have been published in the news media... Past scares about viruses often have proven to be overblown.
"`I'm finding virus catastrophes everywhere,' said Martin Tibor, a data recovery consultant in San Rafael, Calif., whose repeated calls to the media after the Leading Edge incident helped publicize Michelangelo. `These things are replicating like crazy.'
"Consultant Tibor conceded that the calls he made to the media about Michelangelo were in part motivated by hopes of bringing business his way — it in fact brought in only one client, he said. But his main motivation, Tibor said, was to get the word out about a serious computer danger. 'I see the victims of viruses all the time,' he said."
2/18/92: Leading Edge announces it will provide free antivirus software with its entire line of computers. "Because of the increasing number of computer virus outbreaks throughout the industry, no one should assume that software they acquire will be free from infection," claims president Albert J. Agbay.
2/19/92: Symantec announces it has released a free program to disinfect the Michelangelo virus. The software searches for no other viruses (though it pretends to), unlike Microcom's free program which detects 669 different infections. Symantec also purchases a full-page ad in Computerworld's 2/24 issue to warn readers about the virus.
2/19/92: Kurt Hansen of Parsons Technologies, in a public message left on the GEnie network, claims: "Based on what we have seen with customers sending in data disks for electronic filing, Michelangelo is very wide spread. It is more common than Stoned right now. I believe it is a significant problem."
2/21/92: Chris Torchia files an AP newswire describing how Michelangelo "could send millions of computer users around the world through the ceiling." Tori Case, product manager for Central Point Software (a McAfee competitor), claims as many as five million computers worldwide may suffer, including 500,000 in the United States.
2/24/92: The artist Michelangelo would have turned either 516 or 517 years old this March — newswires no longer agree on his age.
2/24/92: Computer columnist Lawrence Magid offers dangerous advice when he tells readers they can avoid Michelangelo's devastating effects if they activate a computer "on March 5 and leave it running until March 7." Magid claims viruses travel by computer bulletin board, then oddly advises readers to download antivirus software from a bulletin board.
2/28/92: An executive with Fuji's floppy disk division makes the newswires by offering advice on how to detect Michelangelo.
2/28/92: Egghead offers to ship a copy of "the special `Norton AntiVirus Michelangelo Edition' for just $4.99." They also offer to send "a free brochure about computer viruses," but some customers will complain it arrived more than a week after the Michelangelo threat had passed.
3/2/92: Intel Corp. ceases shipment of its LANSpool program after discovering 839 packages carried Michelangelo. "Basically, we were using anti-virus software that could not detect the latest generation of the virus," says spokesman Mark Christensen. Ironically, the company will send a free copy of its $995 LANProtect software to anyone who received an infected LANSpool package.
3/2/92: AP writer Laura Myers files a story authoritatively stating Michelangelo "lies dormant in an estimated 5 million IBM-compatible personal computers worldwide." The story includes quotes from John McAfee & Martin Tibor.
3/2/92: Computer columnist Lawrence Magid clarifies his advice to leave computers on through March 7 so as to avoid Michelangelo's devastating effects. "This will work in most cases, but if there is a power failure, many personal computers will automatically reboot themselves. Thus, a power failure on March 6 would have the same effect as turning on the computer."
3/2/92: ABC's Ted Koppel devotes a Nightline episode to Michelangelo with a lead-in announcement of how it "could be devastating, destroying the memories of millions of computers around the world... I just wanted you to understand I'm coming at [this broadcast] with a wealth of ignorance." John McAfee, Patricia Hoffman, and Martin Tibor contribute to the lead-in story, with Tibor ominously stating "[viruses are] the equivalent of doing germ warfare in your own neighborhood."
3/3/92: A Reuters reporter files another erroneous newswire claiming Michelangelo spreads via computer bulletin boards.
3/3/92: Good Morning America science editor Michael Gillan claims "as viruses go, there aren't that many reported incidents [of Michelangelo]... but there is an enormous fear factor." Unfortunately, he advises viewers to leave computers running from March 5 to March 7, following in the dangerous footsteps of computer columnist Lawrence Magid.
3/3/92: Reuters reports Intel stock has dropped $0.50 below its $65.75 close from the day before. "While Intel is to unveil new versions of its most powerful computer chips later today — the 486 DX2 microprocessor — dealers said the shares eased on news Intel had ceased shipment of its LANSpool 3.01 print server utility because some units were found to be infected with the `Michelangelo' virus."
3/3/92: Another Reuters report about the Michelangelo virus mistakenly claims "it spreads via computer bulletin boards."
3/3/92: CompuServe's electronic newspaper, Online Today, erroneously reports the Michelangelo virus spreads via online services such as CompuServe. Management will later pull the embarrassing "GO OLT-93" story after receiving complaints from alert readers.
3/3/92: AP writer Laura Myers files a sensationalist story on Michelangelo. Many TV news anchors read the first paragraph verbatim: "Do you know where that floppy disk has been? Taking a page from safe sex manuals, experts are warning computer users to practice safe computing because of viruses like one called Michelangelo, which could trigger millions of computer crashes and erase data on hard disks this week." TV anchors then follow with the authoritative statement: "The virus lies dormant in an estimated 5 million IBM-compatible personal computers worldwide and is poised to strike on Friday, the artist's birthdate."
3/3/92: Reuters reporter Steve James files a newswire from Bonn, Germany with Michelangelo estimates in the tens of millions just for the United States. "Hamburg University computer virus expert Klaus Brunnstein estimates that 15% of all Personal Computers (PCs) in Germany — around half a million — are infected and will lose their data banks on Friday. He also said that 30% of PCs in Britain and 25% in the United States [about 15 million] are believed to have been infected by the Michelangelo virus, as a result of pirated computer games and infected original floppy discs."
3/3/92: The AP ominously reports "the Michelangelo computer virus has invaded Capitol Hill, sending congressional staffers scurrying for a cure before Friday's trigger date."
3/3/92: John McAfee appears in the AP daily quotes column: "This is one of the most widespread viruses. It's out there in a large way and could cause lots of damage if it isn't stopped." The quote comes from various newswire stories filed by AP reporter Laura Myers.
3/3/92: A Reuters newswire by David Morgan claims John McAfee receives "about 120 reports [worldwide] of Michelangelo infection a day," prompting some experts to ask how this could justify McAfee's previous estimates of five million. Morgan's story also claims "computer viruses, which first appeared nine years ago, are now growing in number at a rate of about six a day" and that "some experts say the recent proliferation of viruses has much to do with the fall of communism in eastern Europe, specifically Bulgaria."
3/3/92: A Reuters newswire says "Poland's biggest daily [newspaper] carried a front page story headlined `Michelangelo, The Mass Murderer, Will Attack On Friday.' " Later reports will detail panicked efforts by Polish citizens to obtain antivirus software.
3/4/92: Ross Greenberg, the programmer behind Microcom's Virex-PC package, takes an unscheduled four-day vacation. "Nobody [in the mass media] likes to hear somebody say `Make a backup. Type FDISK /MBR. Go away.' Headlines such as `Virus Eats Planet Earth' sell more papers," he will say upon return.
3/4/92: Numerous reporters log onto CompuServe, GEnie, America Online, and Prodigy to ask the same question: "Want to be interviewed for a story on the Michelangelo virus?" One USA Today reporter, expecting an avalanche of calls, asks people not to tie up his phone unless they actually get hurt by the virus on March 6.
3/4/92: The AP shifts its focus on Michelangelo after receiving phone calls from outraged virus experts. Stories now begin to center on the fear sweeping the world rather than the virus. Bart Ziegler files the first AP report with contradictory opinions of the situation: "`You're more likely to spill a cup of coffee on your keyboard than to get this virus,' said Peter Tippett, chairman of Certus International Inc., a maker of anti-virus software. `There's definitely hysteria,' said Marianne Guntow, a computer analyst at the University of Chicago."
3/4/92: Multiple UPI newswires erroneously claim Michelangelo spreads via computer bulletin boards.
3/5/92: Scattered reports from around the globe say Michelangelo triggered a day early due to a fluke in some computers. Their internal clocks ignore leap days and changed to March 1, 1992 a day too soon.
3/5/92: AP reporter Robert Dvorchak files the first major newswire with a lead-off paragraph questioning impending sabotage estimates. "Computer users took precautions to disinfect their machines from a virus set to strike on Michelangelo's birthday Friday, although some experts did not expect widespread damage from the electronic prank."
3/5/92: John McAfee debates Charles Rutstein on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour show. Rutstein: "ten to twenty thousand worldwide" will suffer on March 6. McAfee: "anywhere from 50,000 to five million" will suffer, but "we're still talking $60 million at the very low end" for damage & cleanup.
3/5/92: UPI reporter Joe Fasbinder files a newswire claiming the pending devastation from Michelangelo "is certainly expected to be in the millions of dollars. In addition to the data lost to the virus, millions of dollars in employee time will be needed to re-install damaged software."
TRIGGER DATE 1992
3/6/92: A Reuters newswire claims Michelangelo "was unwittingly spread round the world by a single Taiwanese software copying house, Dutch police said on Friday. `Taiwan is the source of the mass distribution of the virus,' police computer fraud expert Loek Weerd told Reuters. `The Taiwanese authorities have not so far given us the name of the software copy house,' Weerd said."
3/6/92: In scattered freak coincidences, 1,200 automated teller machines in New York shut down from a power outage, three-fourths of New Jersey's lottery ticket machines shut down due to a computer glitch, and Philadelphia cable subscribers find their TVs locked to the channel they watched the night before. Panicked customers incorrectly blame Michelangelo for the problems.
3/6/92: Various UPI newswires finally explain Michelangelo doesn't spread via computer bulletin boards.
3/6/92: Reuters now reports John McAfee "estimated at least 10,000 computers had been hit worldwide" by Michelangelo, in stark contrast to previous Reuters stories where he had estimated five million. Other newswire reports mention McAfee's name while outlining a worldwide "media hype" campaign.
3/6/92: AP reporter Bart Ziegler files a scathing newswire: "The day of techno-doom turned out to be a dud... For days, news media relayed forecasts of impending doom from Michelangelo. The story had all the right elements: a mysterious invader with a sexy name that could cause havoc by a definite deadline in machines relied upon by millions. The reports often failed to mention that many projections of potential damage were provided by companies that make anti-viral software and stood to benefit from the scare.
"One source was John McAfee of McAfee Associates, the largest seller of virus-killing programs. McAfee was widely quoted as saying Michelangelo had infected up to 5 million computers worldwide. Asked Friday whether he had overstated the case, he said the low rate of actual Michelangelo damage was due partly to precautions so many PC users took."
3/6/92: Symantec claims over 250,000 users around the world obtained a copy of their free Michelangelo disinfector program. Of the online services, Prodigy and GEnie charged nothing for customers to download special antivirus packages; CompuServe pocketed its regular hourly connect fees for the service.
3/6/92: Michelangelo gets another mention in the AP daily quotes column, this time downplaying the scare — "`It has been overhyped, without question.' Charles Rutstein, staff researcher for the National Computer Security Association, as computer users braced for a computer virus to strike on Michelangelo's birthday Friday."
3/6/92: But while NCSA's Charles Rutstein may have called Michelangelo "overhyped, without question," he praised it in a public message to one of John McAfee's employees. "It really doesn't matter that much any more [how many had the virus]. I think we can all give McAfee Associates...a round of applause... Regardless of the amount of hype, if it helped to save one critical machine at, say, a hospital, I feel that the hype is justified."
3/6/92: AT&T reports Michelangelo erased data on two — yes, "two" — company computers. A spokesman claims AT&T operates about 250,000 IBM PCs around the world.
3/7/92: All major newswires cease reporting about computer viruses by 6:00am Eastern time.
3/8/92: Microcom's Ross Greenberg returns from his abrupt vacation.
3/8/92: No newswire service files a story about computer viruses.
3/9/92: John McAfee resigns from the National Computer Security Association on the first business day after the Michelangelo media fiasco. Patricia Hoffman also resigns, but only from the Washington branch — she does not withdraw from NCSA's Pennsylvania branch. NCSA will suppress knowledge of the resignations for more than a week.
3/9/92: No newswire service files a story about computer viruses.
3/10/92: No newswire service files a story about computer viruses. However, Reuters mentions them in passing as part of a story on counterfeit software: "[Microsoft] said buyers of counterfeit software risk the possible consequences of using defective products and contracting software viruses."
3/11/92: Microcom announces it has released an updated version of its free program, this one with ability to disinfect the Maltese Amoeba virus. It also detects (but does not disinfect) 723 other viruses.
3/11/92: No newswire service files a story about computer viruses.
3/12/92: John McAfee fails to appear at the fifth annual Data Processing Management Association conference in New York. DPMA scheduled him several months in advance to speak on the computer virus threat.
3/12/92: No newswire service files a story about computer viruses.
3/13/92: Scheduled activation date for the Friday the 13th virus. No newswire service files a story about computer viruses — an interesting change considering the media's hype about Friday the 13th in October 1989 and as a footnote to many Michelangelo-related stories.
3/14/92: No newswire service files a story about computer viruses.
3/15/92: Scheduled activation date for the Maltese Amoeba virus. No newswire service files a story about computer viruses — another interesting change considering the media's hype about Maltese Amoeba as a footnote to many Michelangelo-related stories.
3/16/92: No newswire service files a story about computer viruses.
3/17/92: No newswire service files a story about computer viruses.
3/18/92: No newswire service files a story about computer viruses.
3/19/92: No newswire service files a story about computer viruses.
3/20/92: AP writer Larry Blasko files the first major newswire report since 3/7/92, another attack on the antivirus industry: "Snake-oil salesmen aren't dead. They've just reprogrammed their pitch. If you believed what you saw in the media in early March, the computerized world was going to end on March 6 when the computer virus Michelangelo would destroy data on disk drives from Kalamazoo to Katmandu. All was doomed on the 517th anniversary of the artist's birth. But wait. Maybe you were one of the lucky people who owned or could buy virus protection software. Which, by great coincidence, just happened to be on sale...
"So what damage was done? Lots. First, computer viruses are real, just like rattlesnakes and copperheads. But irresponsibly beating the drum and shouting that they're under every bush - when they aren't — will lead the thoughtless to conclude that they don't exist. Second, the huge wave of hype created the notion that low-cost software, whether from bulletin boards or shareware distributors, was fraught with peril. That's a disservice to a source of many of the best utility programs, from DOS utilities to the ubiquitous PKZip and LHArc archiving software. Third, some of the hype was so misinformed that it created myths. Avoid commercial computer bulletin boards, said one myth. Avoid office networks, said another. Never buy generic diskettes said a third. Hogwash all."
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