The 20-Year Hunt for the Man Behind the Love Bug Virus

This story is adapted from Crime Dot Com: From Viruses to Vote Rigging, How Hacking Went Global, by Geoff White.It’s 30 degrees in the shade and I’m standing, sweating, at the entrance to a sprawling street market in the Quiapo district of Manila, capital of the Philippines. On a piece of paper I’ve written the name of the person I’m searching for: a Filipino man named Onel de Guzman. I’ve heard he might have worked among the mass of stalls spread out before me ... maybe ... several years ago.I start showing the piece of paper to people at random. It seems an impossible task. The wildest of goose chases. I don’t know what de Guzman looks like now, because the only photo I have of him is almost 20 years old. Even worse: In the grainy shot, taken at a chaotic press conference, de Guzman is wearing sunglasses and covering his face with a handkerchief.
The young student had good reason to hide. He’d been accused of unleashing the Love Bug , a high-profile and extremely successful virus that had infected an estimated 45 million computers worldwide and caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage.

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The virus was groundbreaking. Not because of its technical complexity or the disruption it caused, but because it showed how to utilize something far more powerful than code. It perfectly exploited a weakness not in computers, but in the humans who use them—a tactic that has been used in countless cybercrimes since. But de Guzman had never admitted to anything. He’d mumbled his way through the press conference, given a couple of noncommittal interviews to the media, and escaped without prosecution. Then he’d gone to ground and hadn’t surfaced in two decades. No social media, no online profile. A ghost in the digital world he’d once been accused of terrorizing.

It had taken me a year to get any kind of lead as to his whereabouts. There were rumors he was in Germany, that he worked for the United Nations in Austria, that he’d moved to the United States, or even that he’d been hired by Microsoft. And now I was stumbling through a market in Manila, showing his name in the hope someone would recognize it.

If I could find him, maybe I could ask him about the virus and whether he understood its impact. And perhaps I could get him to tell me, after 20 years, whether he was really the one behind it. But as I brandished his name, all I got were blank looks and suspicious questions. Then one of the market stallholders grinned at me.

“The virus guy? Yeah, I know him.”

The Love Bug virus was unleashed on May 4, 2000. It was simple, but devastatingly effective and highly contagious. Once infected, many of the user’s files would be overwritten with copies of the virus, so that whenever the victim tried to open the files, they’d reinfect their system. The virus also tried to steal people’s passwords. But the true genius lay in how it spread. Once infected, the victim’s computer would send an email to everyone in their Microsoft Outlook contacts book. The emails read: “kindly check the attached love letter coming from me,” and attached was a copy of the virus, disguised as a text file with the title “love-letter-for-you.”

Faced with such a tempting message, many people took the bait, opened the attachment, and got infected. It didn’t take long for the virus to spread around the world. When you think about the math, its success becomes easy to understand, and quite frightening: If the initial victim had sent it to 50 people, and then each of them infected another 50 people, and so on, it would only take six jumps for the virus to infect everyone in the world (presuming they all had computers).

Panic ensued: Systems in banks and factories were infected. In the UK, Parliament shut down its email network for several hours to prevent infection. Even the Pentagon was reportedly affected.