Thirty 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.
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 warned of major data devastation from the virus. Some reports suggested an estimated 5 million machines would be affected, and media outlets worldwide offered advice for users. The Associated Press used a simile: “Preventing such a virus is much like practicing safe sex to avoid human disease: mainly by avoiding computer contact with disks of unknown origin.” 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—and many did. Parsons Technology, a software wholesaler, reported it had sold 50,000 antivirus programs in the two years preceding Michelangelo, with 16% of those sales occurring in February 1992. According to the CERT advisory on Michelangelo, antivirus programs released after October 1991 addressed the virus.
When March 6 passed, 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.