Overlooked Tech Talent

Alleged "Love Bug" Virus Creator Just Wants Respect

October 25, 2000


MANILA -- If Onel de Guzman wrote the ILOVEYOU virus, he isn't saying. But he did think it was a clever bit of manipulation.

"'I love you' is very easy to understand," the lanky 24-year-old said over a bowl of noodles recently. "Even if you don't understand English very well, you see 'I love you' and you respond right away."

Indeed, millions of people around the world were sufficiently enticed when they opened up their e-mail on May 4 this year that they just had to click where it said "kindly check the attached LOVELETTER coming from me."

What they opened, though, was a virus/worm that immediately destroyed files on their computer and sent itself to everyone in their address book. From the U.S. Department of Defense to the British Parliament to corporations around the world, computer systems came to their knees. Damages are estimated at US$10 billion worldwide.

Five months after becoming the prime suspect behind the most destructive computer virus in history, de Guzman is trying to regain his anonymity.

He's gained weight since the days the media was camped outside the apartment he shared with his sister and his photo was splashed on the front page of every Manila newspaper. He wanted to be less recognizable.

However, de Guzman does have something to tell developers of Microsoft Windows: The world's most popular operating system has too many security flaws. In fact, he wouldn't mind working for Microsoft.

"I can improve the basic operating system," he said casually.

He has also experimented in writing anti-virus software and likes writing Java code. Unfortunately, he couldn't take Sun Microsystems' offer to work on Java when they called at the height of the frenzy.

"My mother was concerned if I went to the United States the FBI would get me," he said.

While he was hiding out at his mother's place on the other side of Manila and prosecutors were trying to figure out if they could charge him with a crime, he said his sister took numerous job offer calls. But he was too tied up with the fear of getting arrested to even think about them.

Now, his legal problems are coming to an end -- almost.

The Philippines had no anti-hacking law and U.S. Department of Justice decided against filing charges under the law governing credit card fraud. The Philippines passed an e-commerce law in June, with provisions for hacking, but it cannot be applied retroactively to the "Love Bug" case.

However, the National Bureau of Investigation (the FBI of the Philippines) filed a motion in September asking prosecutors to reconsider their decision. De Guzman's attorney, Roland Quimbo, who is at his side at all media interviews, said they're waiting for that motion to be dismissed.

These days, de Guzman spends his time mastering the art of relaxation, as Quimbo puts it. He hangs out with old friends, playing pool or video games and drinking beer when they have the money.

He said he wants to go back to school, though not to AMA Computer College, where his thesis advocating free use of the Internet by stealing passwords was rejected. It was the thesis that intensified scrutiny of de Guzman.

He was an ordinary kid who moved to Manila when he was 10 from the island of Samar, where his parents own a fishing business. He was skinny and asocial, and is still not comfortable speaking in English -- rare for an urban, educated Filipino.

He got addicted to programming at age 14, when his sister brought home a personal computer but never used it. So he taught himself how to program in DOS. At AMA Computer College, he bought extra books and taught himself things he wasn't learning in courses.

"In programming I could say I was one of the best but not in other coursework," he said in Tagalog, the primary language of the Philippines. "I hate history. Math is OK. I don't like English. I don't like poems, short stories. It's a waste of time for me."

At college, he formed a group doing "underground programming" with eight classmates. GRAMMERSoft would write code on a contract basis and allow the person who hired them to take credit for the work.

"As long as we got paid, we didn't care who got the credit," he said.

Alan Robles, a Manila journalist who has reported on the world of "coders" and virus writers, said many young programmers prefer to work anonymously for foreign companies.

"It's not in their interest to report their earnings," he said.

GRAMMERSoft was also writing viruses, Robles said, though de Guzman said the group is no longer in operation.

"With the pooled talent, collectively it could do a lot, either good or bad," de Guzman said.

Still, according to Robles, a community of virus writers has not been scared off by the Love Bug incident or the subsequent anti-hacking law that was passed. They've been hard at work out there trying to impress each other with more clever virus or worm programs.

De Guzman, though, would like a job in the United States, where he can learn more advanced skills and use the latest equipment.

"If I have faster computers, I can make something bigger and better," he said.

As for the effect of the Love Bug on the Philippines, he betrays a hint of pride.

"It helped the Philippines get known as a country capable of doing the programming," he said. "Before the love virus, programmers working at Microsoft and other big companies were not given due recognition. But I heard stories that after the virus, they were given more respect."

And respect is all a programmer wants.

"I don't like to be famous," he said. "I just want to do my own work and get respect for the talent."

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