Attack Of The Love Bug

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ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY MATT MAHURIN

ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY MATT MAHURIN

Anne Guepiere works in the Hong Kong office of a large U.S. company that would prefer to remain nameless. At about 4 o'clock last Thursday, she received an e-mail. It seemed innocuous enough. The subject line read iloveyou. With it came an attached document labeled LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.TXT.VBS. How nice. Just a couple of clicks, and her curiosity would be satisfied.

Too late. "I didn't even read the 'ILOVEYOU' part," recalls Guepiere, whom history would record as, if not Patient Zero, then surely one of the earliest victims in a global pandemic. "Only when I opened [the attachment] did I realize there was a problem." Indeed, it was a bigger problem than anybody, probably even its mischievous creator, could have imagined as computers everywhere tumbled like so many dominoes. Once again that scourge of the Internet age--a computer virus--had struck. Silently, lethally, without even a hint of a warning fever, it raced around the world at light speed, clogging communications and bringing both commerce and politics to a halt.

Because of its implicit, fatally attractive message--Oh, just give me a glance, I bear friendly tidings from a loving admirer!--headline writers immediately (and irresistibly) nicknamed it the Love Bug. But there was nothing lovable about it. Before it spent itself--in its first incarnation, it was truly a 24-hour virus--it would affect tens of millions of computers, eventually ring up a toll as high as $10 billion in lost work hours and reopen troubling questions about the safety and security of our vital electronic lifelines. By almost any measure, it was the most damaging virus ever, with at least three times the byte--as more than one punster put it--of Melissa, last year's electronic femme fatale. This was not so much because of its ingenuity, says Finnish computer-virus hunter Mikko Hypponen, whose team was among the first to capture the bug's digital DNA, but because of its blinding speed, spreading around the world in a hypersonic two hours (vs. six for Melissa).

Suspicion fell quickly on a possible culprit in the Philippines, in part because the virus' eight pages of computer code contained a tantalizing word: Barok. A search of virus registries quickly revealed that it was the name of a so-called Trojan horse, a stealthy software program that filches passwords, written by a Filipino hacker last year. Still, the transparency of this clue suggested that the word might have been inserted as a deliberate smoke screen to fool the computer sleuths. By week's end, the work of investigators was further complicated by the appearance of a number of copycat viruses, created either by others or by the Love Bug's author.

Like a real Asian influenza, the virus first emerged in Hong Kong. From there it sped westward with the sun, lying silently in wait in corporate e-mail accounts until unsuspecting office denizens punched in, logged on and double-clicked on the file. Shufiyan Shukur, managing editor of an online news service in Malaysia, was infected when he got an e-mail from a friend in Hong Kong. He knew this guy liked practical jokes but clicked it open anyway. Too late. Twenty minutes later, he laments, "our internal-security people sent out a warning about this virus."

But worse was yet to come. On the other side of the world, in the offices of the German newspaper Abendblatt in Hamburg, system administrators watched in horror as the virus gobbled up 2,000 digital photographs in their picture archive. In Belgium ATMS were disabled, leaving citizens cashless. In Paris cosmetics maker L'Oreal shut down its e-mail servers, as did businesses throughout the Continent. As much as 70% of the computers in Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden were laid low. The companies affected made up a Who's Who of industry and finance, including Ford, Siemens, Silicon Graphics and Fidelity Investments. Even Microsoft, whose software was the Love Bug's special target, got so badly battered that it finally severed outside e-mail links at its Redmond, Wash., headquarters.

Governments, too, felt the pain. In London, Parliament shut down its servers before the Love Bug's assault. "This affectionate greeting," intoned Commons leader Margaret Beckett, "contains a virus which has immobilized the House's internal communication system."

The Yanks didn't do any better. On Capitol Hill, crippled e-mail systems forced an atypical silence in the halls of Congress, as well as some unusual scrambling. Arriving early on a day dominated by the death of John Cardinal O'Connor, New York Congressman Joseph Crowley's press secretary, Josh Straka, logged on to his computer only to unleash the bug. He spent the rest of the day manually faxing press releases. "My stress level was through the roof," he says.

The bug infected 80% of all federal agencies, including both the Defense and State departments, leaving them temporarily out of e-mail contact with their far-flung outposts. Though Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon insisted there were other lines of secure communications available, the virus corrupted no fewer than four classified, internal Defense Department e-mail systems.

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