Is it really a prank if the victim doesn’t realize there’s a prank going on?

One of my friends pranked a colleague by surreptitiously putting a program in the Startup group. This program opened a network socket and awaited further instructions.

Things you could tell the program to do:

  • Create a thread and put it into a 100% CPU loop.
  • Allocate a megabyte of memory (hey, that was a lot back in the day) and go into a loop accessing every byte of memory over and over again.

  • Display a message on the screen.
  • Play a beep.
  • Perhaps some other pranky things, I forget.

My friend told the program to create a thread and peg the CPU, and his colleague didn't notice.

Create a second thread.

Still no reaction.

Allocate a megabyte of memory.

Two megabytes.

Four megabytes.

Still nothing.

Beep a few times for no apparent reason.

No reaction.

My friend now decided to pull out all the stops. Create eight threads, each in a CPU spin loop. Allocate another 16 megabytes of memory. Beep five times in a row. Display a message box with a nonsensical error message. (I forget exactly what it was. Let's say it's "Printer out of bamboo. Get more bamboo. MOAR!")

My friend's colleague shrugged and dismissed the error message.

I think my friend had to display a message box that said "Look behind you" before his colleague finally clued in that he was being pranked.

So you tell me. Was this a successful prank or not, if the victim didn't even realize that he was being pranked?

Comments (28)
  1. Steven Don says:

    I’d still call it a good prank, but I’m worrying a bit about the competence of the victim. Since you don’t disclose whether your friend also works at Microsoft, one cannot infer that the victim does, but if they are just dismissing freak error messages without catching on, one has to wonder how many other such things they have ignore. Malware ahoy!?

  2. Brian_EE says:

    Perhaps the victim knew exactly what was going on and ignored everything just to annoy the would-be prankster.

  3. Ian says:

    I’d say the joke is on all software developers who have written software or systems that have habituated people into accepting the above behaviour as normal :-(

  4. DWalker says:

    Personally, I don’t find this kind of thing funny or interesting. Maybe it’s just me.

  5. Yuri Khan says:

    All of the above is typical malware behavior. Some of the above is also typical antivirus monitor behavior. Windows users are quite used to both groups of software.

  6. Don Reba says:

    To complete the prank, at the end of all that system activity, restart the computer and tell him he was just updated to Windows 10.

  7. EduardoS says:

    He pranked the prankster…

  8. Boris says:

    Ok, let’s define success: a prank is successful if the victim reacts to it in such a way as to generate amusement for the audience. The _level_ of success is measured by the originality of the victim’s reaction, provided of course that it results in laughs. Therefore, by definition, this particular prank appears to be a failure, regardless or whether or not the victim realized that he was being pranked.

    1. Tom West says:

      Fully agree. And yes, DWalker is correct, they are childish, which is why they must be rare and the ratio of amusement to inconvenience must be as high as possible.

      My favourites (some played on me) were old standards – reverse the mouse buttons, screenshot of desktop, then move the folders, etc. All things that cause a minute of WTF, but easily resolved.

      (Although my absolute favourite was simply seeing the mail signature of a colleague known for his excessive informality (didn’t tend to use capitals in emails, wore shorts and t-shirt too work, etc.) changed from “rich” to “Richard Jacob Smith III, B.Sc, M.Sc, Esq.”. I smiled every time I got an email from him for weeks. (And yes, if I had III in my name, I’d probably have rebelled as well.)

  9. sense says:

    Is this a prank being published on April 1st?

  10. Joshua says:

    I did a vaguely similar prank with a more-obvious delivery method (somebody claimed to be able to figure out what any program did, so I sent him and a few others the prank exe). One of them deliberately left it running for half a year. One of them found out that .NET reflector doesn’t work on native binaries.

    1. Brian_EE says:

      I recall back several years there was a coworker I used to “teach security lessons” to. He walked out of the lab without locking the PC, so I sat down, did a remote registry connect to his office machine, and extracted the encrypted VNC password. Then I wrote a program to decrypt the password (VNC password was stored DES encrypted with a fixed key available from the public source). I proceeded to later in the day VNC connect to his office machine while he was using it and start typing/moving mouse etc. He quickly terminated the session but the rest of us had a laugh.

      Now we are stuck with Remote Desktop which forecloses this prank from being used on the new generation.

  11. It is a miserably failed prank. Its idea is a failure in itself, let alone execution. Honestly, what reaction did the prankster even expect? The most common scenario was that the victim would have noticed, run diagnostics and found what appears to be malware. There is no jolts, no bolting, no gasps, and no feeling stupid.

  12. DWalker says:

    “a prank is successful if the victim reacts to it in such a way as to generate amusement for the audience.” THAT is why I don’t like pranks. You are annoying, or interfering with, someone else, in order to laugh at them. I like humor, but laughing AT people is not nice. Are we 12 years old?

  13. Boris says:

    I don’t do or advocate pranks, but if the victim doesn’t find it funny, the prank would still be a failure.

  14. Neil says:

    The question is, was this in the days before Task Manager and so the “victim” just assumed it was Windows being slow as per normal, or was Windows actually doing a good job of hiding the fact that the prank process was trying to steal resources?

    1. This was circa 1996 as I recall. The clue is that 1MB of memory was a lot at the time.

  15. Simon says:

    I did something similar to a friend some years ago after he left a root shell open on his Linux box… gave myself a backdoor that I used to play random MP3s off his hard drive, and open and close the CD drive. Drove him up the wall, I must admit.

    But what’s described here is a pretty poor excuse for an April Fools joke. It sounds like an awful lot of work to make all that happen, bur as others have noted, this is kind of lame. Most of it is just too weak – and if you have to escalate things mid-prank, it’s a pretty clear sign you’ve screwed things up.

  16. Jim A says:

    It was a good prank…

    Back in the day, I pulled a similar prank on a coworker. I installed a Windows service on his computer that slept for a random amount of time between 15 minutes and 2 hours. When it work up, it counted to 175,000,000 in a tight loop at an elevated thread priority, then went back to sleep. This locked the computer for about 7 seconds and was before the days of multicore cpu’s. He would hit it about twice a day and you could hear him loudly blaming our IT guy for not following his advice on some network configuration thing he did.

    This went on for a couple months, until he was finally able to break into the loop with a kernel debugger we were developing and was able to quickly see what was happening. At that point the conspirators fessed up and disabled the service, he burst out laughing, complimenting the prank, and went to apologize to the IT guy.

  17. Boris says:

    I’m thinking about the word “surrepetitiously” here… Now, if it was the victim’s fault that the prankster reached the other side of the airtight hatchway, the victim would be best advised to keep it quiet, but if the prankster was misusing his access, then maybe I’d try to get back at him by reporting malware via the usual IT channels. There are always possibilities.

  18. Scarlet Manuka says:

    I’d have to say a prank can be successful without the victim realising they are being pranked – that’s more or less the premise of hidden-camera shows. But the success of the prank, as Boris points out, depends on getting an amusing reaction from the victim. So this was not a successful prank. A pity, because it really seems like it ought to have worked.

    And now I’m contemplating making an occasional “Printer out of bamboo. Add more bamboo.” error message pop up on my kids’ computers.

    1. Boris says:

      As others have pointed out, I’m not sure why the prankster assumed that the victim would display any kind of visible reaction. Assuming they had something to do with Raymond, these would’ve been programmers, not the archetypical end-user viewing family pictures. Going all Mark Russinovich on it merely involves the keyboard and the mouse. Mute the sound to hide the beeps. Run Task Manager. Run Process Explorer. Trace it back to the file in question. Disassemble the file. Or whatever the equivalent was back in 1996.

  19. MC says:

    My program used to eject the CD drawer wait a few seconds then suck it back in, once every hour. Fortunately my boss had a good sense of humor.

    1. Boris says:

      Ok, I just tried opening my CD/DVD drawer for the first time in five years or so.

  20. paul page says:

    Most pranks are better in theory than in reality. That is, talking about them often provides more enjoyment for more people than the sum of the total when put into practice (especially when someone might end up hurt or angry).

    That isn’t to say all are bad though. A creative person can find “pranks” that have good consequences for all.

  21. I’m so far behind on my blog reading… probably nobody will see this but anyway.

    I did something similar when I was a junior dev years ago. The guy set my PC to large fonts and high contrast after I left it unlocked for a 5 minute coffee break, so for revenge I surreptitiously (via the c$ share) added a program to his startup. my memory is vague, but I think it changed the wallpaper to a 32×32 tiled image of Daffy Duck, then did an EnumWindows and EnumChildWindows, sending a WM_SETTEXT message to everything I could with text “quack quack”. (he was a web dev whose signature coding habit was debug strings prefixed with “looney” everywhere.)

    It didn’t go down well, and he refused to speak to me for months afterwards. Never did that again.

    1. Can’t edit my comment…

      It was quite effective and amusing though, since it repeated the message sending a couple of times every second.

      To kill the process, he could get to the Task Manager, but all the processes were called “quack quack” and both buttons on it were “quack quack” buttons. It was hilarious because he was irate, but the program was more malicious than I intended, and was an overreaction. Of course he never touched my PC again.

  22. Todd says:

    I did the same thing to a friend. Wrote a little program that popped up a progress bar with “formatting hard drive” notice and opened, read, wrote a file thousands of times to make the hard drive churn (back when you could really hear when hard drives churned). I was behind him when it launched and he just patiently sat for three minutes until it was done and continued with his work. The prank was on me, I think, for trying to prank a computer novice.

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