Raiding The 'Love Bug'

The "Love Bug" virus did billions of dollars of damage in a score of countries. It penetrated the secret computer system of the code breakers at the National Security Agency and some classified systems at the Pentagon as well. Investigators quickly found a code within the bug that pointed to the Philippines; but if anything, that only increased the sense of dread about the vulnerabilities of an interconnected world. So how goes the hunt for whoever created this monster?

Last week Elfren Meneses, a paunchy Filipino detective who heads the Anti-Fraud and Computer Crimes Division of Manila's National Bureau of Investigation, swatted at a brown cockroach skittering across his desk. Missing the intruder, he leaned over and blew the bug away. Chatting with reporters, Meneses explained with no trace of embarrassment that he had had no time to read the "topsy-turvy" Love Bug case file. He was unable to explain how a suspicious computer vanished from the apartment--while under surveillance by the police. Escorting his visitors to the door, he barked an order to his men loitering outside his office. "Stand by," he commanded. "We will drink tonight!"

The good news is that the Filipino police have a strong lead, a 23-year-old computer student named Onel de Guzman, whose prank to steal Internet passwords seems to have gone horribly awry. The bad news is that the low-tech Philippines has no laws under which to prosecute computer hackers. More disheartening, perhaps, is the fact that de Guzman, a putative villain to the world, is already a hero to his people. "Yes, the Filipino can!" celebrated the Manila Standard. The headline read: the country's first world class hacker. At de Guzman's school, the AMA Computer College, a student proudly told NEWSWEEK, "It's a cool thing and I respect it. It publicized our school."

Appearing in the code of the Love Bug virus, the words "AMA Computer College" helped lead investigators to de Guzman's door. The computer student lives with his sister and her boyfriend in a run-down district of Manila. Peering through the window of their concrete, tin-roofed tenement, investigators saw a computer inside. But it was late Friday afternoon, and the gumshoes failed to get a search warrant before Manila's courts had closed for the weekend. When the police returned Monday, the computer was gone.

De Guzman came out of hiding three days later. Sweating profusely, wearing sunglasses and hugging his sister as he cowered before cameras in his lawyer's office, de Guzman alternately denied writing the virus and claimed that he had released it by accident. Asked by reporters what he felt about the havoc caused by the bug, de Guzman looked down and mumbled, "Nothing." Police retrieved some computer disks and cell phones from his house, but the most incriminating evidence may be de Guzman's proposal for a college thesis: a Trojan-horse virus "to steal and retrieve Internet accounts" that would offer users "more time on the Internet without paying." The plan closely resembles the Love Bug virus. A review committee at AMA rejected the proposal and the school's dean scrawled "this is illegal" and "we do not produce burglars" on his copy. De Guzman refused to modify his idea and was denied permission to graduate.

Some information-technology experts see Manila's AMA, a school that produces journeymen programmers, as a kind of hacker haven and breeding ground of dangerous viruses. AMA's legal counsel, Luis Pangulayan, denies that the school promotes hacking, but acknowledges that up to a fifth of its students' thesis proposals are kicked back "on legal or moral grounds." In a country where only 5 percent of public-school students have access to computers, AMA hopes to bridge the digital divide. "Finally," reads the school's latest advertisement, "any Juan can get world-class computer-based education like any Tom, Dick or Harry." If any Juan, Dick or Harry with a trade-school education can design viruses that wreak havoc with computers around the world, think what a computer-science Ph.D.--or China or Russia--could do.