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Truth About Computer Security Hysteria

NSA printer virus (1991)

CATEGORY: Media flops, media fiascoes

U.S. News & World Report ran a story in early 1992 claiming the U.S. National Security Agency intercepted printers bound for Iraq just before the Gulf War. The magazine claimed NSA secretly replaced computer chips in those printers with chips containing a virus. USN&WR cited "two unidentified senior U.S. officials" as their source, saying "once the virus was in the [Iraqi computer] system, ...each time an Iraqi technician opened a 'window' on his computer screen to access information, the contents of the screen simply vanished."

The 1992 USN&WR story shows amazing similarities to a 1991 April Fool's joke published by InfoWorld magazine. Reporter John Gantz openly admits he concocted the entire story. Security experts dismiss the USN&WR story as an "urban legend" innocently created by the InfoWorld joke. Some notes:

  1. USN&WR oddly stands by the story to this day, with a tiny "clarification" saying "it could not be confirmed that the [virus] was ultimately successful." Red-faced editors declined to print any letters readers submitted about the story.
  2. Ted Koppel, a well-known American TV news anchor, opened one of his Nightline broadcasts with a report on the alleged virus. Koppel's staff politely refers people to talk with USN&WR about the story's validity. (Nightline has since focused at least two episodes on Internet hoaxes.)
  3. InfoWorld didn't label their story as fiction when they printed it, but Katz's last paragraph tagged it as an April Fool's joke.
Some military "sources" now claim NSA really did intercept printers bound for Iraq, but they planted homing beacons instead of computer viruses. According to one variation on the story, the homing beacons never proved themselves — because a fighter jet smart-bombed them while they sat in an Iraqi depot. (How quaint.)

These claims fail to account for the most important fact of all. InfoWorld concocted the whole thing in 1991 as an April Fool's joke! Variations on the theme carry no credibility, no matter how highly placed the source.

Last updated: 2000/7/24