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Roger Riordan: Career

The Michelangelo virus

 

In the 80s I had been working as a lecturer in Instrumentation and Assembly Language Programming at Chisholm Institute of Technology (formerly Caulfield technical College, now Monash Caulfield Campus). In 1989 the computer labs were invaded by the "Stoned" virus, with disastrous results, and I had written the first version of my program Vet to remove it. At the end of the year I retired from Chisholm and set up my own company Cybec Pty Ltd to sell Vet.

Early in 1991 a Chisholm IT student, who also worked in a computer shop over the road, was installing Vet on new PCs there when he found one with a non-standard boot sector. I don't remember whether or not he established that it was actually a virus, and whether it was on one or more computers, but he sent a copy of the boot sector to me, and I quickly worked out that, although it was otherwise a pretty standard boot sector virus, it had a warhead designed to wipe the hard disk on March 6. The PCs had come from Taiwan (I think), so we assume that the virus had been written there. I added the virus to our next regular update, which went out comfortably before the activation date.

After I had written the antidote I took a copy to the computer shop, and then called in at Chisholm. By chance I met one of my former colleagues in a corridor and mentioned to him that there was a new virus going off on March 6. He said "Oh, that's my birthday". I joked that we should call it after him, but we decided that would not be a good idea, and then he said that that was also Michelangelo's birthday. So that was how the virus got its name. I have no idea why the author chose the sixth, but I doubt if he knew anything about Michelangelo.

I belonged to an international association of anti-viral software experts, and sent them a copy of the virus, and on about the 10th of March I attended an international AV conference in New York, at which I mentioned that we had discovered a new virus that had been set to go off on the sixth, but that I was not aware of its having caused any damage.

The following year McAffee became aware of this terrible new virus, and came to Australia on a crusade to save us from it. He was decidedly narked to discover that everybody was already protected from it, and even more narked when the audiences at the seminars he had organised were more interested in Vet than in his product. Despite (or perhaps because of) all the hysteria I never heard of anyone whose computer was damaged by the Michelangelo virus.

And, on a similar theme, early in 1990 Peter Norton (then of Norton Commander fame) visited Melbourne, and gave a talk at the University. At the end of the talk the audience were invited to ask questions, and I asked him if he was going to do anything about computer viruses. He went into a long tirade about urban myths, comparing the talk of viruses with the tales about alligators infesting the sewers of New York, and girls who had been stung to death by bees which had moved into their beehive hairdos. But when he got home his sales staff told him there was money in viruses, so he bought somebody's program, renamed it, and set off in hot pursuit of the new enemy.

 © Roger Riordan 2004-2017

Discovery of the Michelangelo Virus