The email went to all 800 employees on the WordPerfect Office system. The subject was “I’m the father of Murphy Brown’s Baby,” and it said it was from Dan Quayle.
It was one of the oddest calls I ever got as a member of WordPerfect’s SWAT team. They were a government department and their upper management was NOT amused. They wanted us to figure out who sent it and how to prevent it in the future.
A little pop culture history for some of my younger readers. Murphy Brown was a character on a TV show of the same name in the 1980’s. Murphy was single and decided to have a baby. This was pretty scandalous in the George HW Bush years. This would have been just one more storyline in a sitcom if it weren’t for the Vice President of the United States, Dan Quayle.
Quayle’s career was marked by several verbal gaffes, not unlike our current Vice President. Quayle was most famous for misspelling the word “potatoe” in front of a TV camera.
Anyway, Vice President Quayle felt the need to weigh in on the country’s declining morals as expressed on the Murphy Brown show. Greener’s Law reminds you to
Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.
This was the 20th century equivalent. See Murphy Brown was a comedy about politics. So, the writers wrote an “in show” response to the VP. Someone should have explained to the VP that you cannot win an argument with a person who literally gets to create their own reality! How could you think that was a good idea? Anyway, as you might expect, the VP looked like an idiot and the TV show saw their ratings skyrocket.
As we started to investigate the customer’s site, we discovered that our investigation was hampered by a couple of WordPerfect Office “features.” First, of course, it wasn’t really Dan Quayle, but who was it? We didn’t know. No one actually saw the email. They saw the pop up notification. The pop up had
- Display Name
And that was it. Users could freely change their Display Name. The Display Name showed in the pop up notification and it appeared on the FROM: line followed by the user’s alias. So, everyone saw the notification, but where was the actual message, that would presumably have the user’s actual alias? It was gone.
One of the best features of WordPerfect Office was the MESSAGE RECALL ability. That was a feature where you could send someone an email and then retract it. We called it the “save your job” feature. You know, when it’s 2:00am and it seems like a great idea to tell the boss what you think of her in an email rant? And then the next morning you realize that you actually need your job to pay for stuff you want. Stuff like food and rent. Message Recall let you get it back and the boss never knew it was there. And that was our problem. “Dan Quayle” had sent the email and then immediately recalled it. So, no one got to see the actual email.
Some of my younger readers, those who needed to be told who Murphy Brown was, are probably thinking “What about the versions that went to smart phones?” Nope. This was way before smart phones. All the email lived and died in this one system. We had to tell the customer that there was really no way to figure out who had sent the email.
Can you prevent it from happening again? Or at least help us catch the person if they try it again?
This was the kind of problem that engineers love. How to set a trap that would overcome the Message Recall feature? The trick we came up with was Gateways. Gateways were links between email systems. We don’t really think of them as much more than a feature anymore, but at one point if you wanted to send email to someone outside your company, you had to set up a gateway linking your company email to their company email.
So, we went in and configured a gateway, but we didn’t connect it to anything on the other end. In hacker terms, this would be called a honey pot. We then updated the company Global Address List and added a name for someone whose address was through our honey pot.
The idea was that the Vice President would go into the address book and send an email to everyone, just as he had before. Then, he would immediately recall the message. But, he wouldn’t be able to pull it back through the gateway. At this point WordPerfect Office was still file based, as I mentioned in The Day Batman Almost Got Me Fired.
So, the original message would get placed in the Gateway folder. Then, the message recall, which was really just another file that the email client used to track down the message to be delete, would also get placed in that folder. Since it’s a honey pot, stuff goes IN, but doesn’t come OUT. When the customer noticed another system wide broadcast from the veep, they could zip up the contents of the Gateway folder and we’d decipher the files to find the name of the sender.
Sadly, Dan Quayle quit posting on their network. My guess is that our Vice Presidential impersonator was actually in the IT department. He probably was one of the people helping us set the trap. And given that he could probably correctly spell potato, he wasn’t about to allow himself to be caught that easily.
Modern email programs are completely redesigned from these early days, but, it’s always good to remember that no matter how sophisticated or simple our tools, there are still people behind the keyboards. Sometimes they make good choices, sometimes they claim to have fathered a child on a TV sitcom.
Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.