On or around this day in 1999, David L Smith released the Melissa macro-virus. He posted a Word document on the newsgroup Alt.sex. The document supposedly contained user names and passwords for porn sites. So, of course, people grabbed it. But all it contained was a virus written in the Word macro language. What it did was grab your first 50 contacts from Outlook and forward the virus to them. What’s amazing about it is that it is estimated that it ended up affecting 20% of all the computers attached to the internet at that time.
What’s interesting about the whole thing is that Smith didn’t write the Melissa virus. This is generally the case. Most virus writers do not release them. But they do tend to incite their release by making them available. For decades, I’ve wanted to write a virus — not to release or even run, except in some test environment. I just find the technology interesting. But I haven’t done that kind of coding for fun since my early days in graduate school.
David L Smith is kind of a sad character. He was thirty years old. He named the virus Melissa after a stripper he had known in Florida. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Just the same, I feel sort of like him. When I was that age, my life spun out of control because of what I now see as a lack of meaning. I can easily see myself getting seduced into the world of hackers and doing something incredibly stupid like releasing Melissa.
Compare what Smith did, however, to what happened to Robert Tappan Morris. Morris created the worm that bears his name. But he didn’t mean any harm. He wrote it to measure the size of the internet. It’s just that things, well, got out of hand. This was back in 1988, long before the web — and not long after I got on it. And the worm basically shut down the internet for a few days. But they still convicted him, which just seems wrong.
Smith, on the other hand, I think deserved to go to prison. He was given a sentence of ten years, but served less than two, probably because he was able to roll over on a few virus writers. Otherwise, I don’t know whatever happened to him. He probably wants to be forgotten. But he did bring us one of the great bits of internet lore.
Afterword: My Job and Melissa
If you are curious what I do for a living, the following is some of it. I didn’t do the graphics. I didn’t even do the writing. I just whined at the writers and artists until we got it into a shape that was publishable. It’s not one of my favorites, but it’s still pretty interesting.
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