Twenty-five years ago, PC users around the world were left saying “Huh?” after the much-hyped Michelangelo virus turned out to be, well, not much. The virus’ enduring legacy might say more about the media than about a security risk, as attested in a 1992 post-mortem from the American Journalism Review and this recent YouTube video.
Michelangelo is a boot-sector virus spread by infected floppy disks. It hides on your machine, lying in wait for March 6 (the master artist’s birthday), then rears its ugly head by rewriting data on the boot disk. Journalists and computer security gurus such as John McAfee warned of major data devastation from the virus. McAfee claims he told reporters that 50,000 to 5 million computers would be affected.
Time to panic or just hype?
The press ran with the 5 million estimate, and media outlets worldwide offered advice for users. The Los Angeles Times suggested users not use their computers March 6, or turn them on March 5 and leave them on until March 7. Another option would be to change the system clock using a DOS command (sounds complicated to today’s average user) to March 7.
Or, even better, the user could buy an antivirus program. (It’s safe to say the security gurus made some money in March 1992.)
Then March 6 passed, and reports of infected computers were spotty. (A few unlucky users whose computers were set with the wrong date “celebrated” the artist’s birthday a day early.) Maybe the virus was overhyped, or maybe all of the media attention caused PC users to take the right precautions. Either way, PC users were suddenly very aware of their reliance on a machine.
Tech Time Warp is a weekly feature that looks back at interesting moments and milestones in tech history.