Last Monday I got a warning about the Melissa virus. To my surprise, it turned out to actually be genuine. The number of times I’ve had the Good Times virus warning and its clones arrive in my e-mail – not to mention legends of stolen kidneys, bloody Craig Shergold and the cards – is alarmingly huge, especially when you realise that most of them are forwarded blindly by people who should quite definitely know better.
But Melissa turns out to be real. And all the fuss about the Melissa virus in the past week reminds me of one thing: the computer revolution has meant that some computer users have too much power over their PCs. I mean, if you think about it, what causes this virus to have spread faster than any other in history is the undoubtedly useful power of macros in Microsoft Word. Word macros can now do just about anything, including of course e-mailing your 50 best buddies a list of pornographic web sites and a virus without you even knowing. It could just as easily set a time bomb to wipe your hard drive an hour later.
But does your typical Word user know anything about this? No. I suspect most Word users – and I’m not trying to be patronising here, I’m trying to be realistic – know nothing of some of Word’s most advanced features. Macros, mail merges, even such wonderful things as styles are overlooked by your average person who just wants to type up a report for their boss.
So, despite the fact that Word has macro virus protection built-in, when most Melissa virus victims got their payload – a Word file that looked important enough to look at, and opened it in Word, and Word popped up a message that said something like this document has a macro which may contain a virus which could leave you in very deep shit if it runs and asked if it should be run, I reckon most people shrugged their shoulders and clicked Yes.
To be fair, Microsoft have now shut the stable door – things are apparently a little bit improved in the next version of Word. But it reminds me a bit of that time my boss dragged the Windows System directory to somewhere else on the hard drive. Some computer users have way too much power in their hands. It’s like giving everyone who can drive a car the power to effortlessly pull the engine out of the car.
Of course, they’ve caught the alleged Melissa author now. And the rumour is that the virus is named after a stripper he saw in Florida. How sad is that? But perhaps the whole incident will make people a bit more cautious about the attachments they get in their e-mail.