March 26, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Living in fear of 1999’s Melissa virus.
My father died when I was six, and though I didn’t, couldn’t, step into his shoes, I did inherit his role as my family’s IT guy. When I was around eight, I installed Windows 95 on our home computer with no adult assistance. This was a source of enormous pride and stress. I had dreams involving catastrophic software failures, corrupt data, red error boxes, low-res neon-green background screens. I wanted to find something arcane in Windows 95, something mystical. I looked through every file it installed on our computer.
A few years later, at my prodding, we bought an America Online subscription and lurched into the merge lane of the Information Superhighway, where my stress compounded. If I had any doubt that the Internet was a wild, dangerous place, it was dispelled by the bray and hiss of the 56k modem, which seemed to tear into my phone line—implying the abrasion and contusion necessary to connect.
After that, though, came the chipper baritone of the AOL spokesman: “Welcome!” Within the cheery confines of AOL’s walled garden—buddy lists, channels, chat rooms—I felt, as the company wanted me to, safe. I had a screen name. I had a password.
Beyond its purview, I knew, in the real Internet, there were worms and viruses waiting in microscopic, cyberspatial ambush. The World Wide Web was booby-trapped. All a young man had to do was wander into the wrong Geocities neighborhood, and everything he’d worked to build would be eaten away from the inside: the saved states in his old collection of MS-DOS games; the chats he’d copied and pasted into text files; weezer.mpg, the file for Spike Jonze’s Weezer music video, which came bundled with his copy of Windows 95. As the custodian and chief architect of the family PC, I had to be vigilant.
I phoned my friend’s father, who had a home office in his basement and was so much the master of his domain that he smoked cigarettes there, indoors, as if it were nothing. I asked him: What sort of virus protection did I need to protect my machine?
Soon enough, I’d purchased—or, more accurately, begged my mom to drive me to CompUSA and supply the requisite cash to purchase—a digital prophylactic. The box for my edition of Norton AntiVirus featured a doctor, graying, authoritative, bespectacled and lab-coated, a stethoscope around his neck. Whoever alighted upon the virus as a metaphor for computer trouble was shrewd, but cruel. To declare that a computer can “get sick”—to align the corruption of files with the invasion of the human immune system—is a stroke of empathetic genius; to this kid, at least, it transformed the prospect from one of mild inconvenience to hysterical terror. I did not want an ill machine. I did not want to have to call the e-doctor.
And fortunately, I never had to. Barring the occasional brush with a Trojan horse, I, and my Micron PC with its Pentium processor, survived what was arguably the most benighted era of cyber-security in computer history. But I tried to keep my guard up. I followed the news, and in 1999, when the Melissa virus made headlines by infecting millions of machines, I was afraid.
* * *
“Melissa” came in the form of an e-mail; it was named after a stripper whom its creator, David L. Smith, had met in Florida. “Important Message From [so-and-so],” the subject line said, which would be, today, enough to raise a red flag for most of us. And if it weren’t, the rather graceless body text would be a dead giveaway: “Here is that document you asked for … don't show anyone else ;-)”
That emoticon strikes me as remarkably guileless. Shouldn’t it have suggested that something was amiss, that things were not what they seemed? Maybe people didn’t read their e-mails as closely in 1999; maybe documents were circulating so rapidly that one could never remember if one had requested them; maybe everyone, everywhere, was e-winking. Whatever the case, millions found it advisable to open that “document.” They discovered an infected Word file, a list of eighty porn sites in which was embedded a self-promulgating code: Melissa forwarded itself to the first fifty people in your Outlook address book.
Fifteen years ago, this unsophisticated prank was enough to horrify me, and rightly so—with its exponential growth, it soon felled the mightiest of servers. Paul McNamara, of Network World, wrote on the virus’s tenth anniversary,
It was Friday, March 26, 1999 when Melissa first began to bring corporate and government e-mail systems to their knees. By the time all was said and done, hundreds of networks would be temporarily crippled—including those of Microsoft and the United States Marine Corps—an untold number of e-mail users would be affected, and an overall damage figure of $80 million would be bandied about.
David L. Smith, Melissa’s thirty-year-old author, was soon smoked out in New Jersey; he served twenty months in prison and helped the FBI track other virus writers.
“It is supposed on his part that the motive was to see if he could achieve what he did achieve,” the New Jersey Attorney General, Peter Verniero, said. But even that statement, admirably and almost existentially circular, goes too far. Smith seemed to have no real appetite for achievement, even for its own sake; he never expected Melissa to replicate on such a massive scale. He released the virus on a usenet newsgroup, “alt.sex.” He was a geeky man who liked porn, trolling other geeky men who liked porn.
“I remember at the time being surprised at how old Smith was,” Graham Cluley, who works in Internet security, writes. “Most virus writers at the time were teenage boys, not emotionally mature enough to have grown out of writing viruses which were predominantly designed to show off rather than make money.”
Which raises a good point. I was terrorized, in preadolescence, by viruses that were in large part the inventions of adolescents: an early, oblique form of cyberbullying. In a time before Facebook and YouTube, the older kids were still getting their jabs in, whether they knew it or not.
As I grew up, viruses and all manner of technological meltdown lost their grip on my imagination—the Internet also became, of course, better inoculated against them. But I can still picture the stress dreams I had then, and I can still remember the earnestness with which I treated my charge as IT guy: the sweat that would sheen my palms when I opened an e-mail from a stranger, the care with which I handled the instruction manuals to new software. I think my relatives wondered if I’d be an engineer, like my dad. But that illusion can’t have lasted long. In 1999, while Melissa made hell for the real IT guys, I was in the seventh grade, on the verge of failing pre-algebra.