A tiny typo in an automated email to thousands of customers turns out to be a big problem for legal

Unexpected consequences of the SQL Slammer worm


Who, Me? Do you check your emails before sending them? Re-read a dozen times but still that typo sneaks through? Welcome to a Who, Me? in which a reader learns that one mistyped letter can result in a visit from the legal department.

Our tale, from a reader Regomised as "Ali", takes place nearly 20 years ago, when he was in his first (and almost last) job in IT. His career, in a manner familiar to many, began on the helpdesk. And his company? An outfit that lurked behind the scenes for many of the personal websites that came bundled with the major ISPs of the era.

"We hosted about 1/3 of all existing websites at the time," he told us, "so if you had a little vanity site … we were probably the host."

Unfortunately for Ali, this was also the era of the SQL Slammer worm. One night the helpdesk lines lit up as customers found themselves unable to reach their sites. For those who don't remember the event, Slammer exploited a flaw in Microsoft's SQL Server (patched, but not applied everywhere) to cause denial of service on some hosts and generally slow down traffic on the internet.

Ali's helpdesk tickets up until this point had mainly consisted of users not knowing how to use the service: "Like how do I get my email, why can't I edit my site, what do you mean I need to own a computer to work on a website – I just bought a modem!"

"You know," he said, "all the usual BS that makes up about 90 per cent of all calls to the helpdesk."

Being a creative fellow, he put together macros that could go through the helpdesk queue and fire off the appropriate response. A little like the bots of today that annoy users so. Unlike those bots, Ali also built in some human interaction so he could check what was being sent before it actually went out. "Having it set to semi-auto like that made sure that any mistakes didn't get out of hand," he explained.

However, with the sheer volume of cases being generated by the SQL Slammer worm, Ali decided to go full-auto ("with my supervisor's blessing," he added, "which is probably what saved my ass from getting fired").

It was a simple enough task. The answer would be the same message. There was a security flaw with MSSQL that was responsible for screwing with everyone's day. It went out to around four thousand users.

Except there was a typo. Just a single letter, but pretty much the worst one that he could have got wrong. Rather than 'MSSQL', Ali managed to point the finger of blame at a well-known open-source relational database management system. It also transpired that his message managed to hit one of the bigwigs behind the project who, understandably, was not best pleased at their software being blamed for the cockup by a web host the size of Ali's.

The next evening, when Ali started his helpdesk shift, he was called into a meeting with all the company cheeses, from big to grand. The legal team, looking less than polished and more than flustered, were also present.

"That meeting went on for about seven years," recalled Ali with a shudder, "but oddly enough, it was only about an hour later that they let me go back to my desk and send out a 'correction' to all recipients of the first message."

No more was ever spoken about the event. "So I assume we didn't get sued into oblivion."

We've all sent that email with a critical typo, or referenced an attachment we forgot to include. But have your fat fingers ever resulted in thousands of raised eyebrows? Confess all with an email to Who, Me? ®

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