For my new book on cybercrime, Crime Dot Com, I tracked down the author of the first computer virus pandemic who finally admitted his guilt, 20 years after his creation infected around 45 million machines worldwide. Here’s how it went…
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 man I’m searching for: 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 all goose chases.
I don’t know what de Guzman looks like now, because the only photo I have of him is almost twenty years old. Even worse: it’s a grainy shot taken at a chaotic press conference, in which 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.1
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. It was a tactic that has been used in countless cybercrimes ever since. But de Guzman had never admitted to anything. He’d mumbled his way through the press conference, given a couple of non-committal 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 terrorising.
It had taken me a year to get any kind of lead as to his whereabouts. There were rumours he was in Germany, that he worked for the UN in Austria, that he’d moved to the US, 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 twenty 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.’
Crime Dot Com will be published by Reaktion Books on August 10 – pre-order your copy now.