Remembering Michelangelo

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the Michelangelo virus. If you don’t remember, on March 6, 1992, Michelangelo was programmed to overwrite the first 100 sectors of a hard drive–not quite as destructive as formatting a drive, but to the average user, the effect is the same. It was a huge scare–John McAfee predicted five million computers would be affected–but largely was a non-event.

Those of you studying for security certifications would do well to remember that Michelangelo is a prime example of a virus and a logic bomb. Viruses replicate; logic bombs do something when an event triggers. Malware doesn’t always fit neatly into specific categories–crossovers are common.
I was in high school when it happened. Specifically, I was editing the student newspaper, and I had advocated strongly moving the newspaper from pasteup to doing as much as possible via computer. In March, we would have been working on our third issue under this system, and everyone was apprehensive about whether we should turn on the computers that day.

Except for one thing: Michelangelo was a virus for IBM PCs running DOS, and we did our newspaper work on Macintoshes. So on March 6, I marched into the computer lab, turned on the computers, and worked just like I would on any other day. Nothing happened.

I also defiantly walked into the next room and turned on the couple of IBM PS/2s sitting there. Nothing happened on those, either. Although they were technically vulnerable, there was no good way for them to get infected. They didn’t have hard drives, they weren’t on a LAN, they didn’t have modems, and the only disks that ever got used in the machines were stored on site. In 1992, people thought something was wrong with you if you carried floppy disks on you, so few people did. The worst that could have happened would have been those machines losing their boot floppies. They didn’t.

Eradicating Michelangelo was pretty easy–just run FDISK /MBR from DOS 5 or later. I may not have known that trick at the time, as I was still a die-hard Amigan in those days. I had a working knowledge of DOS and Windows 3.0/3.1, but my first PC-related job was still a couple of years away.

The most significant thing about Michelangelo was that it was the first big virus scare. It was a non-event compared to viruses that came later, but it reflected the growing importance of computers in the 1990s. Today, when people ask me about whatever virus scare is circulating via e-mail chain letter, my standard question is whether they heard about it on the news, or via some more questionable source. Michelangelo was the first virus that really caught the mainstream news media’s attention.

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