How a badly-coded laptop virus precipitated billions in harm

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Skinny, with a mop of black hair falling to his eyebrows, he appeared to barely register the journalists’ shouted questions, his solely motion the occasional dabbing of sweat from his face with a white towel. Seated to his proper, de Guzman’s lawyer Rolando Quimbo needed to lean in shut to listen to the 23-year-old’s mumbled response, which he then repeated in English for the ready press.

“He’s not actually conscious that the acts imputed to him have been certainly carried out by him,” the lawyer stated. “So for those who ask me whether or not or not he was conscious of the implications I might say that he’s not conscious.”

Twenty years on, the ILOVEYOU virus stays one of many farthest reaching ever. Tens of hundreds of thousands of computer systems world wide have been affected. The struggle to comprise the malware and monitor down its writer was entrance web page information globally, waking up a largely complacent public to the hazards posed by malicious cyber actors. It additionally uncovered vulnerabilities which we’re nonetheless coping with to today, regardless of 20 years of advances in laptop safety and expertise.

This account of the virus relies on interviews with regulation enforcement and investigators concerned within the unique case, contemporaneous CNN reporting and reviews by the FBI, Philippines police and the Pentagon.

A number of makes an attempt to achieve Onel de Guzman for this text, together with via his household and former lawyer, have been unsuccessful. De Guzman has not commented publicly on the case since 2000 and his present whereabouts are unknown.


On the afternoon of Could 4, 2000, Michael Gazeley was in his workplace at Star Laptop Metropolis, a warren of IT corporations and retailers promoting electronics and devices overlooking Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor.

A couple of months earlier, Gazeley and his longtime enterprise accomplice, Mark Webb-Johnson, based their very own data safety agency, Community Field, which specialised in defending clients from on-line threats. Each males had many years of expertise within the trade, and had simply completed the grueling (although sometimes profitable) work of making ready for the brand new millennium by staving off the Y2K bug that threatened to trigger widespread harm to techniques worldwide.
Although largely remembered right this moment, a lot to the chagrin of these concerned, as an overreaction — or worse, a hoax — the Y2K bug was real, and the potential prices huge. They were avoided because of the diligent efforts of programmers world wide working collectively. It was an indication of the brand new connectivity that the web, nonetheless in its relative infancy, was fostering.

That connectivity minimize each methods, nonetheless, as Gazeley was reminded of that afternoon.

All of the telephones in his workplace began ringing without delay. First have been his shoppers, then got here non-customers, all calling frantically within the hope that Community Field may assist cease a virus that was screaming via their techniques, destroying and corrupting information because it went.

All of them advised the identical story: Somebody within the workplace had acquired an electronic mail with the topic “ILOVEYOU” and the message, “kindly verify the hooked up LOVELETTER coming from me.” After they opened what seemed to be a textual content file — truly an executable program masquerading as one — the virus shortly took management, sending copies of itself to everybody of their electronic mail tackle e book. These recipients, pondering the e-mail was both some bizarre joke or a severe declaration of affection, opened the attachment in flip, spreading it even additional.

A screenshot showing a copy of the ILOVEYOU virus email which spread around the world in May 2000.

Workplace electronic mail servers have been quickly clogged as 1000’s of affection letters went forwards and backwards, disseminating the virus to extra folks. It turned out to be a lot worse than only a self-propelling chain letter. Concurrently it was replicating itself, the ILOVEYOU virus destroyed a lot of the sufferer’s laborious drive, renaming and deleting 1000’s of recordsdata.

Most of the more and more panicked callers Gazeley was fielding inquiries from didn’t have backups, and he had the awkward job of explaining to them that lots of their recordsdata — all the pieces from spreadsheets and monetary information to photographs and mp3s — have been probably misplaced for good.

“This wasn’t one thing that folks have been used to as an idea, they did not understand that electronic mail might be so harmful,” stated Gazeley, recounting the primary calls.

Your entire idea of the web was nonetheless comparatively new in 2000. Based on statistics from the Worldwide Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations physique, simply 28% of Hong Kongers had entry to the web at the moment, together with 27% of the United Kingdom, and 15% of France. Even in the USA, the place the expertise was invented, just some 43% of Individuals have been getting on-line.

Two years earlier, Hollywood star Meg Ryan requested “is it infidelity for those who’re concerned with anyone on electronic mail?” because the film “You’ve got Acquired Mail” launched folks to the thought of cyber-romance — and that electronic mail might be used for one thing aside from boring workplace work.

Network Box co-founder Michael Gazeley was among the first cybersecurity experts to have to tackle the ILOVEYOU virus.

Laptop chaos

From Hong Kong, the place the virus crippled the communications and ravaged file techniques of funding banks, public relations companies and the Dow Jones newswire, the love bug unfold westward because the Could Four workday began.

Graham Cluley was on stage at a safety convention in Stockholm, Sweden, when the virus hit Europe. He had simply completed describing an unrelated virus which focused a now-defunct working system, hijacking customers’ accounts to broadcast messages to their coworkers, together with “Friday I am in LOVE.” This, Cluley cracked, was more likely to trigger extreme embarrassment for most individuals, however may probably result in some workplace romance.

  • Damaging viruses timeline

  • Michelangelo virus predicted to take down hundreds of thousands of machines, however ultimately solely a handful are affected.

  • Melissa, an electronic mail worm named after a Florida topless dancer, spreads to 1000’s of computer systems worldwide.

  • ILOVEYOU virus clogs up electronic mail servers and causes billions of {dollars} in damages worldwide

  • Anna Kournikova worm makes use of promise of photographs of the tennis star to inflict repeat of ILOVEYOU chaos.

  • Stuxnet virus begins concentrating on Iranian nuclear services in instance of what some later describe as “first cyberwar weapon”.

  • Conficker virus creates “botnet” of hundreds of thousands of contaminated machines however in the end isn’t used.

  • Duqu virus found and stated to be associated to Stuxnet, sparking renewed fears of a possible cyber arms race.

  • Hackers use CryptoLocker virus to grab computer systems and drive folks to pay to revive entry in new “ransomware” assault.

  • Denial of service assault launched through Mirai botnet — which makes use of contaminated internet-of-things units — knocks dozens of main websites offline.

  • WannaCry ransomware assault strikes companies and public establishments world wide.

Supply: US Military

Because the convention broke for espresso, attendees’ cellphones and pagers started going off wildly. A number of visitors approached Cluley, asking if the virus he’d described was unfold through electronic mail. He assured them it wasn’t — and, anyway, it was restricted to a distinct segment system that most individuals did not use.

“They stated, Properly, that is bizarre as a result of we’re out of the blue getting a great deal of emails with the topic line ‘I like you,'” Cluley stated in an interview from his dwelling in the UK.

When Cluley turned on his personal telephone, he was bombarded with notifications of missed calls, voice mails and textual content messages. Again dwelling, Cluley’s employer, the anti-virus agency Sophos, had been getting “completely hammered” with telephone calls from shoppers begging for assist and journalists attempting to grasp what the hell was happening.

Cluley raced to the airport to catch a flight to London, and even traded telephone batteries with a beneficiant taxi driver because the fixed stream of messages drained his Nokia cellphone of energy. When he landed in the UK, a automobile was ready to whisk him to a TV studio to debate what had by now turn out to be one of many largest tech tales on the planet.

In 5 hours, ILOVEYOU unfold throughout Asia, Europe and North America, some 15 instances sooner than the Melissa virus did when it struck a 12 months earlier than, infecting over 1 million computer systems.
Quickly after beginning enterprise on Could 4, the UK’s House of Commons needed to take its overloaded electronic mail servers offline, as did the Ford Motor Company and even Microsoft, whose Outlook software program was the first technique of spreading the virus.
On the time, Home windows controlled greater than 95% of the private laptop market, and Outlook got here bundled with Microsoft Workplace, then all-but-required for doing enterprise on a pc. For most individuals, Outlook was electronic mail.

In contrast to right this moment, when many electronic mail companies are run through centralized servers — suppose or Gmail — corporations in 2000 have been operating electronic mail off the identical servers on which they hosted their web site. This might be janky, sluggish and startling insecure.

Again then, Cluley stated, “many corporations did not have in place filters their electronic mail gateways to try to cease spam, not to mention viruses.”

Regardless that the USA had advance warning, the virus unfold simply as shortly there — as nearly everybody appeared apparently unable to withstand opening the “love letter.” Within the Pentagon, there was consternation because the virus hit the USA Military Forces Command (FORSCOM) mailing record, with 50,000 subscribers.

From there, nearly each main navy base within the nation — barring a handful that did not use Outlook — watched as their electronic mail companies have been crippled and compelled offline for hours as the issue was fastened.

Trying to find the wrongdoer

Throughout the Potomac River, on the FBI’s Washington, DC, headquarters, Michael Vatis was scrambling to get a deal with on the disaster.

As director of the Nationwide Infrastructure Safety Heart (NIPC), a comparatively new intergovernmental company tasked with tackling cyber threats, Vatis was awoken early Could Four with information of the ILOVEYOU virus hitting the USA. The NIPC quickly despatched out an alert warning of a “new, in-the-wild worm virus recognized as LoveLetter or LoveBug [that] is being propagated globally through e-mail,” however it got here too late to forestall a lot of the US authorities and navy, in addition to dozens of personal corporations, from being affected.

As anti-virus corporations slowly started rolling out patches, stemming the harm and enabling corporations to come back again on-line, consideration inside the FBI turned to monitoring down these accountable. The investigation was led by the New York subject workplace, which quickly discovered proof pointing again east, past Hong Kong, to the Philippines.

“In a really brief time period, we ended up figuring out people within the Philippines and looking for the help of Philippine regulation enforcement,” stated Vatis, now a accomplice on the New York regulation agency Steptoe. “And a really brief time after that, the Philippine authorities in the end made an arrest.”

Each the technical repair and first break within the case got here so quick as a result of, for all its fast dissemination world wide, the ILOVEYOU virus was clumsily coded and startlingly unsophisticated. It mashed collectively a number of current items of malware and did little to cover its workings.

“Each single sufferer of the love bug received a duplicate of the love bug’s code, the precise supply code,” stated Cluley, the Sophos analyst. “So it was easy to jot down an antidote. It was no extra complicated than any of the opposite 1000’s and 1000’s of viruses we might seen that day. However in fact, this one was notably profitable at spreading itself.”

In addition to containing the blueprint for defeating it, the code additionally included some traces pointing to the id of its writer. It contained two electronic mail addresses — [email protected] and [email protected] — each of which have been primarily based within the Philippines. There was additionally a reference to GRAMMERSoft Group, which it stated was primarily based within the nation’s capital.

Whereas investigators have been cautious that these clues might be a smokescreen, the virus additionally communicated with a server hosted by the Manila-based Sky Internet, to which it despatched passwords scraped from victims’ computer systems. Sky shortly took the server offline, which stopped no less than a part of the virus in its tracks.

With out the servers to ship data to — and it seems the virus’s writer was by no means in a position to entry what was despatched to the server, or no less than act upon it — ILOVEYOU turned purely an engine of chaos and destruction. It churned via electronic mail inboxes world wide and deleted recordsdata, whereas not truly serving the obvious unique goal of scraping passwords.

A suspect emerges

4 days after the virus started spreading, Philippines police searched an apartment in Manila and seized laptop magazines, telephones, disks, wires and cassette tapes. Additionally they arrested one of many occupants, Reomel Ramones.

Ramones, a curly-haired 27-year-old who labored at a neighborhood financial institution, appeared like an unlikely laptop hacker, and investigators questioned if that they had arrested the fallacious man. Consideration turned to the condo’s two different residents: Ramones’ girlfriend, Irene de Guzman, and her brother, Onel.

Onel de Guzman — who was not within the condo when it was raided, and couldn’t be discovered — was a pupil at AMA Laptop School. The school was dwelling to a self-described hacking group, the now-defunct GRAMMERSoft, which specialised in serving to different college students cheat on their homework. Whereas police couldn’t show initially that de Guzman was a member, officers on the college shared with them a rejected last thesis he had written, which contained the code for a program bearing a startling resemblance to ILOVEYOU.

Within the draft thesis, de Guzman wrote that the objective of his proposed program was to “get Home windows passwords” and “steal and retrieve web accounts [from] the sufferer’s laptop.” On the time, dial-up web entry within the Philippines was paid for by the minute, in distinction to the blanket-use charges in a lot of Europe and the USA. De Guzman’s concept was that customers within the growing world may piggyback on the connections of these in richer nations and “spend extra time on [the] web with out paying.”

Studying his proposal, de Guzman’s instructor was outraged, and wrote “we do not produce burglars” and “that is unlawful” within the margins. However whereas the thesis would price de Guzman his diploma, his instructor’s argument about illegality can be confirmed incorrect.

Onel de Guzman, seen here in May 2000, was quickly accused of being the author of the ILOVEYOU virus.

Authorized loophole

After a number of days out of the general public eye, de Guzman appeared on the press convention in Quezon, flanked by his lawyer and sister. Requested whether or not he might need been accountable for the virus, he responded via his lawyer: “It’s doable.”

“He didn’t even know that the actions on his half would actually come to the outcomes which have been reported,” his lawyer stated. To a ripple of laughter from reporters, the lawyer added, after a mumbled session with de Guzman: “The web is meant to be instructional so it needs to be free.”

Requested what he felt in regards to the harm attributable to the virus, de Guzman stated “nothing, nothing.”

Nothing would additionally develop into de Guzman’s punishment, regardless of reams of proof gathered by police within the Philippines and the settlement of the nation’s Nationwide Bureau of Investigation (NBI), the FBI and personal safety investigators, that he was the culprit.
The issue was not a scarcity of proof, however the lack of an applicable regulation to cost him with. The Philippines, like quite a few nations on the flip of the millennium, had not legislated towards laptop crime. And an try to prosecute de Guzman on fraud prices was later dropped. Whereas the Philippines did have an extradition treaty with the USA, it solely utilized to crimes prosecutable in each nations. As soon as the case was dropped, there was little likelihood of sending de Guzman overseas.

Whereas Philippines lawmakers did rush via a regulation criminalizing laptop hacking quickly after the ILOVEYOU incident, it couldn’t be utilized retroactively.

“We have been unable to carry to justice a wrongdoer who precipitated hurt to hundreds of thousands of individuals and corporations world wide,” Senator Edgardo J. Angara said years later, echoing the embarrassment felt by many Philippines politicians and regulation enforcement officers.
For others within the nation, de Guzman was a hero. “Here’s a Filipino genius who has put the Philippines on the world map,” wrote one newspaper columnist. “[He] has confirmed that the Filipino has the creativity and ingenuity to show, for higher or for worse, the world the wrong way up.” It even spawned a film, “Subject: I love you,” which depicted the virus creator as a lovelorn man attempting to reconnect “with the one girl he had ever liked.”
At de Guzman’s faculty, a fellow pupil told the New York Times, the virus had “made us proud.” One other basked within the skill of a Filipino hacker to “penetrate the Pentagon … although the Philippines is a third-world nation, although we’re behind in expertise, they have been in a position to do this.”

Twenty years on, this response nonetheless annoys Cluley, the Sophos investigator. “It is the type of factor that has you thumping your head towards a wall in frustration,” he stated. “This was when malware was simply starting to get a bit of nastier and a bit of extra malicious and extra financially motivated.”

“This wasn’t the message we needed to provide younger folks, that this was all proper.”

The risk of attacks like ILOVEYOU has not gone away. So-called ransomware attacks which targeted many businesses in 2017 relied on just the same kind of social engineering as the love bug.

Lengthy legacy

There have been admirers of de Guzman’s work outdoors the Philippines, too. Inside hours of ILOVEYOU spreading, remixed copycats had sprung up, with messages similar to “very humorous,” “joke,” “Mom’s Day,” or, most cynically, “VIRUS ALERT!!!” Amazingly, regardless of the close to wall-to-wall media protection of the ILOVEYOU virus on the time, this didn’t cease many individuals opening suspicious attachments which bore a unique message.
The love bug and its variants would trigger some $10 billion of injury, the FBI later estimated, earlier than updates to anti-virus software program and electronic mail shoppers reined them in. To today, ILOVEYOU stays one of many farthest reaching viruses, hanging hundreds of thousands of machines in nations the world over.

“It had an unlimited impact,” stated Vatis, the previous NIPC director. “It was actually worldwide entrance web page information for no less than a number of days in a means that laptop assaults had not been up to now.”

Whereas earlier assaults had precipitated extra direct harm, and people sooner or later can be extra refined and much simpler of their objective, they have been additionally way more restricted in scope. Different viruses have focused particular areas, companies or governments. ILOVEYOU may have an effect on nearly anybody operating Home windows Outlook.

“It hit dwelling in a means that different earlier assaults didn’t,” Vatis stated. “It made folks conscious that this isn’t simply one thing that occurs to protection companies or homeowners of internet sites, that is one thing that may occur to any Joe or Jane sitting at dwelling on the pc or within the workplace, and it will probably shut you down and actually disrupt your skill to function.”

And whereas electronic mail shoppers have gotten higher at filtering out malicious-seeming messages, the principle weak point that ILOVEYOU exploited stays unattainable to repair.

“You possibly can replace your working techniques or you’ll be able to have the very best electronic mail filters on the planet, however you’ll be able to’t patch the human mind,” stated Cluley.

To today, among the most profitable cyber assaults — whether or not they be linked to nation-state actors, prison organizations or lone-wolf hackers — have used social engineering as their main weapon. The hackers that stole emails from the Democratic Nationwide Committee (DNC) in 2016 did so by tricking Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta into handing over the password to his Google account. Those that focused Google in 2003 went after the corporate’s workers over on the spot messaging. And ransomware attacks, an more and more widespread type of rip-off whereby victims’ computer systems and accounts are frozen till they pay to unlock them, nearly all the time work by getting folks to click on a dodgy hyperlink.
Whereas some hackers use zero-day exploits, beforehand unrevealed vulnerabilities in key software program, or purpose built spying tools to go after their victims, many don’t use code way more refined than that seen within the ILOVEYOU assault. They need not.

“People are all the time the weak hyperlink,” Vatis stated. “It is nearly all the time simpler to use a human via some social engineering gambit than it’s to crack, you recognize, some technological defensive measure.”

One factor that has modified considerably since ILOVEYOU is how ready most corporations are for such an incident. Most no less than have some type of anti-virus safety, and again up their information. However all of the specialists who tackled ILOVEYOU 20 years in the past agreed that there stays a startling diploma of complacency over probably devastating cyber assaults.

“What’s horrifying is that 20 years after, there are nonetheless loads of organizations who do not take this severely till they’re hit,” stated Gazeley, the Hong Kong cybersecurity professional. “So many individuals nonetheless do not plan forward.”

What largely prevents such an assault is that almost all corporations and people outsource operating electronic mail servers to those that know do it finest — primarily Microsoft and Google — and depend on them to filter incoming messages, minimize out spam and warn of potential assaults.

Had been a worm like ILOVEYOU to discover a well past these filters, and unfold quick sufficient to forestall the businesses rolling out a patch, the opportunity of it doing main harm stays. There isn’t a motive to count on that the typical consumer has grown any much less complacent right this moment. With electronic mail suppliers doing many of the work in recognizing dodgy messages, they could truly be extra so.

Vatis stated that the potential impact on on-line communications of such a worm might be “devastating,” as may the knock on the worldwide financial system as corporations go offline or lose enterprise abruptly. He in contrast the state of affairs to individuals who keep away from getting vaccinated for the flu yearly.

“That is not an issue for society as a complete till the vaccination fee drops beneath a sure proportion,” he stated. “After which you may have lots of people getting actually sick.”


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