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The first malware scare turns 30: the Michelangelo virus

A boot sector virus activated in 1992 caused arguably the first significant computer malware scare in history, boosting the antivirus industry.

In 1991, an owner of a computer shop in Australia noticed strange symbols on his screen. An investigation of the cause found that a virus infected the system.

On 6 March, the virus activated, overwriting owners’ data. Interestingly enough, the virus would remain dormant on the device and activate the same day, no matter what year it is.

Since 6 March is the day Michelangelo, the great artist of the Renaissance, was born, the virus was named after him.

The virus

Michelangelo is a boot sector virus, a type of malware that infects the boot sector of a floppy disk or, more importantly, the master boot record (MBR) of a hard disk.

The virus was designed to infect DOS systems and operated at the BIOS level. While many boot sector viruses depend on physical media to spread, activating the malware whenever the storage device loads.

However, Michelangelo remained completely dormant in the system. The virus was activated on a specific date – 6 March.

Despite its flashy name, Michelangelo itself is not referenced anywhere in the malware itself. The name was created by the security community of the times. The authors of the virus couldn't disagree as they were never identified.

The hype

Since the existence of the virus was already known, industry insiders and journalists started speculating how many computers might be already infected with the virus.

The legend goes that the infamous John McAfee, the founder of an anti-virus business of the same name, told reporters that Michelangelo might have infected as many as 5 million devices.

With around 20% of US households owning a computer, 5 million infected devices meant a massive disruption with implications spanning far beyond North America.

After all, the virus rendered any files on the device essentially unusable, a disaster for many businesses increasingly reliant on computers for day-to-day activities.

However, others claim that McAfee painted quite a different picture. According to Aryeh Goretsky, who worked with McAfee at the time, he told reporters that due to a lack of data on the virus itself, the infection rate could be anywhere between 5,000 and 5 million devices.

The latter figure, however, stuck, causing a media frenzy. And a massive influx of new customers to anti-virus software providers all over the world.

False scare

As the much-anticipated day approached, media headlines got out of hang with one of the leading US newspapers stating, “Deadly Virus Set to Wreak Havoc Tomorrow.”

The scare turned out to be a dud. While several thousand computers around the globe did get affected by the virus, it was nothing ‘deadly.’

Later that year, however, McAfee went for an initial public offering, raising $42 million, an impressive amount for a company in 1992 with only 12 employees.

However, the real impact of the Michelangelo virus was that the threat of malware finally knocked on everyone’s door.

While the idea of a menacing computer virus was not new, the threat became very real with media reports, TV segments, and experts discussing what a rogue virus can do.

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