The Hack That Brought Down an Army: How the Computer Worm “Melissa” Even Cut Off Microsoft’s Internet Access

2 mins read

When the internet first came into our lives, how innocent was it? No viruses, no spam, no scammers… But as the online world has grown, so have the things we need to worry about, like the “Melissa” virus.

Today, the “don’t open suspicious emails” rule has become part of common sense in the online world. And there’s a good reason for this common sense, right?

But this common sense was not so common in the past, and March 26, 1999 was a memorable day in the cyber world.

So what exactly happened on that date?

That day, hundreds of thousands of people around the world received an email containing a Word document that would cause an estimated $1.1 billion in damage and paralyze numerous networks.

This computer worm, called Melissa, was a wake-up call for the Internet. But how could a Word document cause so much chaos on the newly respected World Wide Web?

Melissa’s story began with 31-year-old programmer David Lee Smith.

Smith was computer literate and, as someone who could foresee the future of the internet, he reflected this in the code he wrote.

The internet of the 90s was a new and exciting space for everyone, but it was also a space for malicious activity.

Using a popular email client like Microsoft Outlook, Melissa spread rapidly as a macro virus.

This worm, a Word macro, would automatically send itself to the first 50 people on people’s email lists. This process happened over and over again, paralyzing networks.

Within hours, more than 300 companies, including Microsoft and the United States Marine Corps, lost access to the internet.

In North America alone, this resulted in $80 million in lost company time.

Even Smith, Melissa’s creator, didn’t think the virus would cause so much damage. Despite cooperating with the FBI, he was convicted and sentenced to 20 months in prison.

However, the incident contributed to the development of security software and made popular programs such as Microsoft Office more secure.


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