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    How the Michelangelo Virus Infected Us and the World Learned the Name "McAfee"

    Written by

    Michael Byrne

    Editor

    Wow, so computer security pioneer John McAfee is wanted for murder in Belize and he’s on the run and blogging about it about stuff. In any case, that McAfee name was forged some 20 years ago during the Michelangelo computer virus scare, in which anti-virus software became a tool of the commons. The incident is worth remembering.

    In 1992 I was 12 and my family didn’t even have a computer to get infected with the dreaded Michelangelo virus, which hit the world with a soft pat 20 years ago today. The introduction to my house of an internet-less Apple PowerPC was still a few years away but, nonetheless, that was the year that computing became inescapable for me. Michelangelo, by no means the first computer virus but the first computer virus-as-popular phenomenon, was not just going to ruin some hard drives, it was going to send the world into chaos — somehow. This was a computing disaster of common concern, with the ability to do common harm.

    McAfee at rest.

    Much of that sense of doom can be blamed on John McAfee, the anti-virus software pioneer. In early February 1992, McAfee claimed that the virus might hit upwards of five million IBM personal computers, destroying each and every one. By March 2, that estimate seems to have gone down to one million and, a couple days later, it became “anywhere from 50,000 to five million” computers, with damages at a minimum of $60 million. Meanwhile, Tori Case, product manager for McAfee competitor Central Point Software, was making the five million claim as well, likely repeating it, and a data consultant in California named Martin Tibor went on a mission alerting the media to the impeding crisis (an effort to snag customers, he later admitted). On an now-infamous episode of Nightline March 2, Tibor let this gem fly: “[viruses are] the equivalent of doing germ warfare in your own neighborhood.” (See also: Michelangelo Fiasco: a Historical Timeline.)

    March 6 came and went. The Associated Press reported, “The day of techno-doom turned out to be a dud.” Of Boston University’s 2,000 campus computers, three cases were reported. Of AT&T’s 250,000 business computers in use worldwide, Michelangelo hit two. Generally, the virus did less damage to computers than time does to computers.

    From the The Victoria Advocate, Mar 7, 1992.

    The next day, John McAfee left his post at the National Computer Security Association, but him and his pals/rivals had done their work — over the course of a few weeks, anti-virus software went from rare to a necessary tool. Later that same year, McAfee went public, raising $42 million. At the time, the company had a whopping 12 employees. Now, I’m asked on a regular basis by a McAfee pop-up on my laptop whether I’m really sure I want to launch this application or open that website. (These numbers come courtesy of a Naked Security post outlining the whole thing from the perspective of a security pro. It’s worth a read.)

    Post-Michelangelo, the computing world and beyond knew in a whole new way what a computer virus was. Michelangelo had spread a very powerful idea. The potential for fear and danger and and power via a computer was nothing new, of course — War Games, Colossus: the Forbin Project, 2001: A Space Odyssey. But, well, this was real. It involved your own computer and it had nothing to do with a computer being evil or being programmed evil. A computer could catch this, like a virus. The idea was not just that a computer virus could spread through the world and cause great damage, but that the computing world was very close to you as a person living in that world and could have disastrous consequences on you personally. HAL had taken up residence in your house.

    A report on Michelangelo from “CBC Midday with Valerie Pringle”

    Michelangelo had a few things in common with one particularly terrifying biological virus too, in its talent for hiding out dorment, waiting for activation, and in its particular method of physical spread. Michelangelo got around through floppy discs; one went into an infected computer virus-free, and came out ready to transmit the virus to another computer. The next computer got it, and spread it in turn. No one would be the wiser until Michelangelo woke up at start-up on the following March 6. The other 364/5 days, Michelangelo had no effects.

    In an article from 1994, Deborah Lupton notes, “Like HIV, computer viruses are described using metaphors of insidious and hidden danger: they are like a ‘time bomb’ and ‘lie dormant’ and ‘hide’ until ‘triggered’, and as ‘the electronic equivalent of the bubonic plague,’” after first wondering, “Why do we find it appropriate to represent computers as if they were animate organisms, susceptible to illness and death?”

    The dawn of the computer virus was the dawn too of the overly personal computer, ready to be personified and personify at you all too freely. Lupton likens it to a kind of malevolent transcendence from cold mechanical device to smiling bot, the sort of thing Apple is really good at. “The threatening persona of the all-controlling and dehumanizing computer, common in popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s, has been superseded by the friendly personal computer, an extension of oneself, helpmeet in the home and office and companion in leisure activities such as video games.”

    Her conclusion is a bit cultural studies-y (it was published in the journal Cultural Studies):

    In the age of AIDS, viral infection positions the subject as the site of contamination, the subject needful of surveillance. The infected computer, like the person infected with HIV, becomes the locus of horror. But on a deeper level of meaning, the threat posed by computer viruses is secondary to the threat posed by computers themselves, without which there would be no computer virus. Computers themselves, invested with human motivation and cunning, may be regarded as viruses in the body politic, insidiously and silently spreading into all reaches of human society, seeking domination at the cellular level, reproducing uncontrollably. The computer virus trope thus becomes a metonym for computer technology’s parasitical potential to invade and take control from within.

    Remember, by the way, that this is pre-HAART 1994, where HIV was a deadly illness and not yet the money-sucking chronic illness that people can live normal and normal-length lives with today. But you get the idea. Now then, if we jump back the other way, from the biological to mechanical, the picture has moved aggressively in a different direction, toward even greater computing power and greater computing closeness: forget looming eyeball LED technology, just in terms of the PCs we carry around in our pockets.

    I guess it all depends on how you define “taking control.”

    (Disclosure: I’ve done freelance work in the past for McAfee competitor Symantec.)

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv, @everydayelk.

    Topics: viruses, mcafee, security

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