The Michelangelo virus was a computer virus perpetrated on computer users in the early months of 1992. It was based on the Stoned virus which had appeared in New Zealand around Christmas of 1991. The virus only affects MS-DOS, UNIX, and some early versions of OS/2. The primary object of the virus was to wipe the infected computer's hard drive(s) clean.
The virus, in typical 1992 fashion, was transferred primarily by infected floppy disks. It would then infect the Master Boot Sector of the main hard drive. Curiously, the program was not a matter of instantaneous activation - instead, the virus was set to erupt on a precise date, March 6. A clever researcher of the virus gave it its nickname after the great Italian painter, whose birthday was March 6.
For some reason unbeknownst to this author, the fact that this virus was based around a singular cacophonous day of destruction caused major media outlets across the nation to pick up on its electronic trail. Much like the Y2K Bug crises of late 1999, there was a worldwide hysteria as computer experts predicted the crash and burn of hundreds of thousands of computer systems worldwide - possibly even ones of great national security and economic sensitivity. People geared up for the worst, and the virus gained new popular ground when Nightline staffers discovered the virus on "no less than 50%" of the computers in their offices. March 6 arrived, and tension was in the air.
The day of techno-doom turned out to be a dud.
~ Bart Ziegler, AP reporter
The virus was generally effective in corrupting all disks used by the computer on that date, but proved to be overhyped, as infected users numbered only in the hundreds. Minor power outages in New York City and Philadelphia caused a Michelangelo panic, but all in all, the numbers were far below official estimates. Despite its general ineptitude, media outlets and virus bulletins continued to expound against the "dangerous" Michelangelo virus, and it became somewhat of an annual event for slow news days in February to warn computer users about this ticking time bomb.
The reports often failed to mention that many projections of potential damage were provided by companies that make anti-viral software and stood to benefit from the scare.
The true story of the Michelangelo virus is not in the damage it did, but the business it generated. Computer stores were literally jam-packed with customers waiting in lines around the corner to buy anti-virus software. Sales of protective scrubbers nearly doubled from January 1992 to February 1992, reaching a climax in the first week of March. The Michelangelo virus was found on a few computers, but the software also detected hundreds of other minor virii on people's computers. This was somewhat of an eyeopener for a number of businesses and customers, who had assumed their computers weren't susceptible to such assaults. This incident alone (jokingly referred to as "Michelangelo Madness") gave rise to the current multi-billion dollar anti-virus software industry of today.
Entrepreneur John McAfee (then of National Computer Security Association and later founder of McAfee Associates) was more than happy to report to the Associated Press that "5 million computer users might lose their data" on March 6. He even appeared on NBC's Today, telling Bryant Gumbel that at least "a million" computers were infected, though he had no actual data to back this claim up. Symantec ran full-page ads in several computer-oriented magazines offering a "free detection utility" for the virus. Other companies, now defunct, offered up numerous experts calculating billions of dollars in damage. When the date passed with only a minor blip in infections, the press was embarrassed - but the anti-virus people had already made their dollar.
So what damage was done? Lots. Computer viruses are real, just like rattlesnakes and copperheads. But irresponsibly beating the drum and shouting that they're under every bush - when they aren't - will lead the thoughtless to conclude that they don't exist.
~ Larry Blasko, AP reporter