BOSTON—An Internet worm that disabled networks across the U.S. Monday and Tuesday temporarily thrust the nation into its most severe maelstrom of productivity since 1992.
"In all my years, I've never seen anything like this," said Price Stern Sloan system administrator Andrew Walton, whose effort to restore web service to his company's network was repeatedly hampered by employees busily working at their computers. "The local-access network is functioning, so people can transfer work projects to one another, but there's no e-mail, no eBay, no flaminglips.com. It's pretty much every office worker's worst nightmare."
According to Samuel Kessler, senior director at Symantec, which makes the popular Norton Antivirus software, the Internet "basically collapsed" Monday at 8:34 a.m. EST.
The Gibe-F worm, an e-mail-transmittable virus, initiated cascading server failures. Within an hour, Internet service to more than 90 percent of the U.S. was disabled, either by the worm or by network firewalls that initiated security protocols.
"Unlike SoBig or Blaster, this worm didn't harm individual computers; it just used them as a gate to attack the Internet at the ISP level," Kessler said. "Computer technicians at most offices couldn't do anything but sit by helplessly as people worked through stacks of filing, wrote business-related letters they'd put off for months, and sold record amounts of goods and services over the phone."
Shortly after office workers found their web, e-mail, and instant-messaging capabilities disabled, reports of torrential productivity began to reach corporate offices nationwide.
"My first thought was 'My God, this has to be some kind of mistake,'" said Prudential Insurance executive vice-president Shane Mullins of San Francisco. "My e-mail wasn't working. Nerve.com wasn't working. I eventually found out that the company web site wasn't working, either. But by that time, my inbox was filling up like you wouldn't believe."
"My actual physical inbox," Mullins added. "It's this gray plastic thing on my desktop—the top of the desk I sit at."
With workers denied access to ESPN.com, Salon, Fark.com, and Friendster, employers struggled to keep up with the sudden increase in efficiency.
"Our office was working at roughly 95 percent efficiency," said Steven Glover, an advertising executive and creative team leader at Rae Jaynes Houser. "It's problematic to have the rate jump like that—it sets a precedent that will be impossible to maintain once the Internet comes back."
Glover said his department failed to reach 100 percent productivity only because employees stopped work every few minutes throughout the outage to see if Internet service had been restored.
"This is terrible," said Miami resident Ron Lewison, an employee at Gladstone Finance and an Amazon.com Top 500 Reviewer. "For two days, I've been denied access to the vital information I need to go about my workday. In the absence of that information, I've been forced to go about my job."
According to Labor Department statistics, companies affected by the Internet outage generated an estimated $4 to $6 billion in extra revenue.
"Losses to online retail companies will be considerable, " said Jae Miles, senior financial economist at Banc One Capital Markets in Chicago. "Nevertheless, the outage's overall impact on the national economy will be a positive one. The losses should be easily offset by the gains to companies that depend primarily on people finishing actual work."
As of press time, many administrators had begun to apply a patch that combats the Gibe-F worm.
"Thank God, Earthlink service is back, and with it, online shopping and entertainment news," office worker Emily Jaynes said at 7 p.m. Tuesday. "I'm ready to head home now. I couldn't bear to spend another evening repainting furniture and using my pool."
Financial experts say they hope to have detailed data on the economic impact of the outage within the next 24 hours.
"When American office workers are denied access to vast, complex streams of ever-fluctuating and evolving information, they tend to get a lot done," said Nicole Dansby, a business-information analyst employed by the New York Stock Exchange. "The extended Internet outage may or may not have had something to do with the Dow's 278-point jump Tuesday. I'll have to, you know, check the web for a few hours and get back to you."