The virus threats we worried about in the late 90s are quite different than the one we're worrying about in 2020, because someone looked at word processors and said, "You know what that needs? That needs a full fledged programming language I can embed in documents."

Alex was a sailor for the US Navy, fresh out of boot, and working for the Defense Information School. The school taught sailors to be journalists, which meant really learning how to create press releases and other public affairs documents. The IT department was far from mature, and they had just deployed the latest version of Microsoft Word, which created the perfect breeding ground for macro viruses.

Alex wasn't in the IT department- not yet- and was actually learning to be a journalist. At the end of classes one day, he saved a bunch of Word documents to a shared computer. The next day, he came in and found they were all destroyed- as were everyone else's.

The chiefs in the school sent out stern warnings about viruses, and not running any unfamiliar executables. Lots of work was lost, but this was the late 90s: many of the documents got printed out for review anyway, so there were hard copies of much of the classwork. After a week, things were basically back to normal.

And then the virus hit again.

Cue another round of stern warnings, and NCOs chewing out anybody who even looked at the computers wrong, or thought about running an unauthorized executable. One Seaman got caught with a floppy containing WOLF3D.EXE, and while no one in the barracks knew exactly what happened to him, everyone agreed it must have been pretty dire.

After the third time, Alex decided to offer his services. He wasn't an IT professional, but he was pretty technical. Maybe he could take a look?

Chief Donaldson thought it over for a few moments. "Well, kid, it's already jacked up. You probably can't make it any worse. Take a look."

Anti-virus protection was provided by Norton. It had been configured to use a whitelist to decide which files to scan. That whitelist didn't include *.doc files. Alex made that fix on his computer, and showed Chief Donaldson what he'd done.

The IT department was notified, but had no interest in listening to some kid fresh out of boot camp. They'd been in the service for years, so there was no need for them to change their policies or procedures.

Alex shared his knowledge with his peers. It quickly percolated out through the Navy barracks at the Defense Information School, and without the IT department doing anything, very quickly nearly all of the computers the Navy used were protected against macro viruses. The same couldn't be said about the other branches of military service, which each had their own barracks at the Defense Information School.

Still, the virus activity was severely curtailed. For months, nobody thought about anything, and the IT department patted themselves on the back for making a really good show of stopping the virus. And then came the "field trip": the budding military journalists would go to another military base to participate in a war game, simulating a "real world" scenario which would let them hone their journalistic skills under fire.

There was one problem. The only computers that had been configured to defend against macro viruses were the ones Alex and his peers had personally protected. Those were back at the Defense Information School Navy barracks. Here, they were using computers that were tagged for field deployments.

This meant they were about 15 minutes into the wargame when a Word virus started forwarding itself through every newsroom computer on the simulated battlefield. Since this was a number of branches at the same time, it was an even more varied collection: some raced to delete files, others opened as many porn sites as they possibly could, and yet others simply played an animation claiming that they were formatting your hard drive (they weren't).

You might think that makes this more of an IT education than a journalistic experience. Certainly, Alex eventually moved on to become an IT professional in the civilian sector. But there was a very valuable lesson on military journalism to be had, in the form of the after action report on the exercise. It managed to bury the entire IT disaster with a brief blurb: "Computer viruses and malfunctions were not part of the exercise parameters. These should be part of the plan for future exercises."

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