02 May How a badly-coded computer virus caused billions in damage
Skinny, with a mop of black hair falling to his eyebrows, he appeared to barely register the journalists’ shouted questions, his only movement the occasional dabbing of sweat from his face with a white towel. Seated to his right, de Guzman’s lawyer Rolando Quimbo had to lean in close to hear the 23-year-old’s mumbled response, which he then repeated in English for the waiting press. “He is not really aware that the acts imputed to him were indeed done by him,” the lawyer said. “So if you ask me whether or not he was aware of the consequences I would say that he is not aware.” It was May 11, 2000, and if de Guzman was feeling shell-shocked, he had good reason to be. He was accused of authoring and releasing the first truly global computer virus that had disrupted the operations of businesses and government agencies the world over, from Ford (F) and Merrill Lynch to the Pentagon and the British parliament, and was on track to cause a estimated $10 billion in damages — all in the name of love. Twenty years on, the ILOVEYOU virus remains one of the farthest reaching ever. Tens of millions of computers around the world were affected. The fight to contain the malware and track down its author was front page news globally, waking up a largely complacent public to the dangers posed by malicious cyber actors. It also exposed vulnerabilities which we are still dealing with to this day, despite two decades of advances in computer security and technology. This account of the virus is based on interviews with law enforcement and investigators involved in the original case, contemporaneous CNN reporting and reports by the FBI, Philippines police and the Pentagon.Multiple attempts to reach Onel de Guzman for this article, including through his family and former lawyer, were unsuccessful. De Guzman has not commented publicly on the case since 2000 and his current whereabouts are unknown.LovestruckOn the afternoon of May 4, 2000, Michael Gazeley was in his office at Star Computer City, a warren of IT companies and shops selling electronics and gadgets overlooking Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor.A few months earlier, Gazeley and his longtime business partner, Mark Webb-Johnson, founded their own information security firm, Network Box, which specialized in protecting customers from online threats. Both men had decades of experience in the industry, and had just finished the grueling (though occasionally lucrative) work of preparing for the new millennium by staving off the Y2K bug that threatened to cause widespread damage to systems worldwide. Though largely remembered today, much to the chagrin of those involved, as an overreaction — or worse, a hoax — the Y2K bug was real, and the potential costs massive. They were avoided thanks to the diligent efforts of programmers around the world working together. It was a sign of the new connectivity that the internet, still in its relative infancy, was fostering. That connectivity cut both ways, however, as Gazeley was reminded of that afternoon. All the phones in his office started ringing at once. First were his clients, then came non-customers, all calling frantically in the hope that Network Box could help stop a virus that was screaming through their systems, destroying and corrupting data as it went. They all told the same story: Someone in the office had received an email with the subject “ILOVEYOU” and the message, “kindly check the attached LOVELETTER coming from me.” When they opened what appeared to be a text file — actually an executable program masquerading as one — the virus quickly took control, sending copies of itself to everyone in their email address book. Those recipients, thinking the email was either some weird joke or a serious declaration of love, opened the attachment in turn, spreading it even further. Office email servers were soon clogged as thousands of love letters went back and forth, disseminating the virus to more people. It turned out to be much worse than just a self-propelling chain letter. At the same time as it was replicating itself, the ILOVEYOU virus destroyed much of the victim’s hard drive, renaming and deleting thousands of files. Many of the increasingly panicked callers Gazeley was fielding inquiries from did not have backups, and he had the awkward job of explaining to them that many of their files — everything from spreadsheets and financial records to photos and mp3s — were likely lost for good. “This wasn’t something that people were used to as a concept, they didn’t realize that email could be so dangerous,” said Gazeley, recounting the first calls. The entire concept of the internet was still relatively new in 2000. According to statistics from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations body, just 28% of Hong Kongers had access to the internet at that time, along with 27% of the United Kingdom, and 15% of France. Even in the United States, where the technology was invented, only some 43% of Americans were getting online. Two years earlier, Hollywood star Meg Ryan asked “is it infidelity if you’re involved with somebody on email?” as the movie “You’ve Got Mail” introduced people to the idea of cyber-romance — and that email could be used for something other than boring office work. Computer chaosFrom Hong Kong, where the virus crippled the communications and ravaged file systems of investment banks, public relations firms and the Dow Jones newswire, the love bug spread westward as the May 4 workday started. Graham Cluley was on stage at a security conference in Stockholm, Sweden, when the virus hit Europe. He had just finished describing an unrelated virus which targeted a now-defunct operating system, hijacking users’ accounts to broadcast messages to their coworkers, including “Friday I’m in LOVE.” This, Cluley cracked, was likely to cause severe embarrassment for most people, but could potentially lead to some office romance.