20 years ago, a young Filipino programmer, Onel de Guzman, was about to become the prime suspect in a criminal investigation. Why? He appeared to have set lose the so called ILOVEYOU computer virus, a worm that infected tens of millions of Windows computers around the world in May 2000. Until today, the Love Bug worm remains one of the farthest-reaching computer viruses of all times. Despite mountains of evidence, all charges against Onel de Guzman were eventually dropped. Only because, at that time, there was no law covering computer hacking.
Love Bug Worm
The virus spread through an email with the file attachment “LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.txt.vbs”. In the body a short message said: “Kindly check the attached LOVELETTER coming from me.” When email users opened the file, the virus quickly took control.
First, the virus started with sending copies of itself to the first 50 addresses in the user’s address book. Next, it overwrote and deleted images and other files on the victim’s hard drive. Simultaneously, it added a registry entry to startup automatically on boot. Finally, the computer worm scraped Windows passwords and sent them to a server in the Philippines.
The VBScript Onel de Guzman had used, was not new. However, it had never been used on such a scale or for a virus. Also, the subject line and topic of the email apparently struck a chord. Moreover, the worm was written for Microsoft Windows. Windows controlled about 95% of the personal computer market at the time.
The First Truly Global Computer Virus
Soon, the virus spread from Manila to Hong Kong, and further westwards to Europe and the United States. Because the virus used user’s address books, the emails appeared to come from someone the victim knew and were therefore regarded as “safe”.
The concept of the internet was still relatively new. Further, the idea of a computer virus spread by email was not at the top of an average user’s mind. As a result, ILOVEYOU had the opportunity to run its course. The worm thrived and became the first truly global computer virus.
The Love Bug Worm had no preferences. It ravaged everything and everyone, from the systems of investment banks, communication companies and military bases, to the Dow Jones newswire. To protect themselves, the British Parliament, the Pentagon and the CIA, as well as most large corporations, including Microsoft, decided to shut down their systems.
Over 45 Million Computers affected, $10 Billion in Damages
Within ten days, over 45 million infections had been reported. Cybersecurity experts later estimated that the ILOVEYOU computer had caused from $5 to $10 billion in damages. A further $10 to $15 billion was needed to remove the worm.
A 25-Year old Thai computer engineer, Narinnat Suksawat, was the first person to successfully write software that could fix the problem. He released “Rational Killer” at no charge to the public, 24 hours after the Love Bug worm started to spread.
It All Started with a Rejected Thesis Proposal
Apparently, ILOVEYOU started with Onel de Guzman’s rejected thesis proposal. The paragraph explaining the young programmer’s reasons for his study read: “The researcher decided to develop this program because the researcher believes that it will be helpful to a lot of people to get passwords such as Internet Accounts to spend more time on the internet without paying.”
How he proposed to help “people and especially Windows users”? By “stealing and retrieving accounts off the victim’s computer”. In the margins of Onel de Guzman’s proposal, his professor wrote: “This is illegal!” and “We don’t produce burglars!”
The argument about the illegality later proved to be incorrect. At the time, the Philippines had no laws covering computer hacking. So, while Onel de Guzman was apprehended within days, neither he nor anyone else was ever prosecuted. Months later, Philippine lawmakers did introduce a law criminalizing computer hacking. However, it could not be applied retroactively.
Where is Onel de Guzman now?
In 2012, the Smithsonian Institution named ILOVEYOU the tenth-most virulent computer virus in history. In an article they said the virus was “like an old-fashioned chain letter gone nuclear. It only took hours for Love Letter to become a global pandemic, in part because it played on a fundamental human emotion: the desire to be loved. In that sense, Love Letter could be considered the first socially engineered computer virus.”
Technology reporter Geoff White of BBC News personally tracked down Onel de Guzman in 2020, to “resolve the 20-year old mystery of Love Bug’s origin”. Following a post on a forum dedicated to the Philippine underworld, he followed the trail back to Manilla and eventually met Onel de Guzman at a messy stall.
“He [Onel de Guzman] admitted having created Love Bug, which he said was a revamped version of an earlier virus he had coded in order to steal internet access passwords. In spring 2000 he tweaked the code, adding an auto-spreading feature that would send copies of the virus to victims’ Outlook contacts, using a flaw in Microsoft’s Windows 95 operating system. He also created a title for the email attachment that would have global appeal, tempting people across the world to open it.”
Now 44 years old, Onel de Guzman runs a small phone repair booth in a shopping mall in Manilla. He never went back to college.