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Good times; bad times

by Geoff Hart

Originally published as: Hart, G.J. 1999. Good Times overshadowed by Melissa. Computerworld Canada, Dec. 17:17. Republished as: Hart, G.J. 2000. Good times; bad times.

Over the past few years, most network managers have received at least one panicked message warning of something called the "Good Times" virus. Dozens of variants of this hoax have emerged from the depths of cyberspace, but all said essentially the same thing: In a nutshell, this virus ostensibly arrives in the form of an e-mail message with the subject line "Good times!" and somehow reformats (or otherwise "destroys") the recipient's hard drive as soon as it's read, destroying all information and software. AOL is usually cited as the authority that "officially announced" they'd discovered the threat, though IBM and Microsoft sometimes share the credit.

The notion that something as innocent as an e-mail message, which contains no executable code, could damage a hard drive was, of course, nonsense. Ironically enough, massive forwarding of the warning message by well-meaning users and the fear and anxiety inspired by the message probably did more damage than most real viruses had ever done up to that point. So for the past few years, you've laughed and told your computer-using colleagues not to worry, warned them not to forward warning messages, and turned your attention to bigger problems--like documenting problems with your own software, not someone else's problems.

Then "Melissa" changed all the rules.

The first "macro viruses" attached to Microsoft Word documents emerged shortly after Office 97 was released and sounded the warning that a new era was upon us. The developers of antivirus software responded immediately, and things more or less stabilized again—until Microsoft released a version of the Outlook e-mail client capable of running certain macros in the form of Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) code attached to e-mail messages. Despite dire warnings of the vulnerabilities this created, Microsoft couldn't be bothered to fix the problem, and in one of those rare but immensely satisfying instances of poetic justice, Melissa hit Microsoft as hard as it hit many other companies that use Outlook.

Fortunately, Melissa was a relatively benign Word macro virus. All it did was instruct Outlook to transmit copies of the virus to recipients listed in the victim's e-mail address book; each of these victims in turn forwarded the virus to 50 more recipients as soon as they opened it. Innocent enough on the face of it, but this automated spamming crippled many corporate e-mail systems and required hours or even days of work by MIS staff to set things right again. Some companies had to shut down their external e-mail for several days at a time until they could solve the problem.

In the wake of Melissa, the Good Times virus is no longer a hoax: E-mail viruses are a real threat, and one that may become much more serious over the next year. For the first time, what you read truly can hurt you. Of course, as technical writers, we already knew that, didn't we?

Against the new generation of viruses, we have three main lines of defense: First, update our antivirus software regularly with new virus descriptions from the vendor's Web site so we won't fall victim to an older virus when a "vaccination" exists. Second, we can learn enough about viruses that we understand the threat they pose, and we can thus figure out how to protect ourselves against new viruses that the vendors of antivirus software haven't yet learned how to cure. (The time lag between discovery of a new virus and the development and distribution of a cure can be days or weeks.) One key trick is to never open file attachments without confirming that the person in the "From:" line of the e-mail message actually intended to send it to us; in particular, we should be very wary indeed about "executable" files (any file with the extension .exe or .vbs). Third—and most important—understand the problem well enough to explain it to your friends and colleagues so they can take appropriate precautions and neither be hit by a virus nor be the one to spread it to you.

And isn't that the kind of work we writers do best? Our employment depends on our ability to understand complex software and describe it to others who don't (yet) have the understanding. Just as a vigorous immune system, well-primed by a vaccination, can ward off biological viruses, education is still our best defense against computer viruses. I've used viruses to illustrate my point thus far, but more than viruses confront the users of the products we document. What problems are you aware of in the products you document, and what are you doing to persuade the developers to fix the problem? Sometimes there's not much you can do beyond advocating for change and documenting the problem so that the people for whom we act as advocates can cope. There's no real cure for complexity, but a sufficient dose of knowledge often gives our audience the tools they need to work through a problem.

Bad times for the users forced to face the growing complexity of modern life; good times for those of us lucky enough to be working in this field.


Several credible sources of virus and related computer security information can provide the information and warning you need:

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