TOPICS > Science

Background: The Love Bug

May 5, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

SPENCER MICHELS: Yesterday, millions of people were seduced by an offer of love online. Today, the cyber promise was a joke, with a new e-mail offering humor. But for those who responded, the joke was on them.

The e-mails contained a destructive computer program, referred to as a worm, which is a type of virus. The so-called “love bug” was first detected in Asia and rapidly spread through electronic mail across the globe. Experts believe it may have started in the Philippines by a 23-year-old computer hacker nicknamed “Spyder.”

The worm has wreaked havoc in offices, causing companies to lose sales and time. 80% of the companies in Australia reportedly got hit. In the United States, where the cyber infection may have been just as widespread, employees at large and small businesses made contact the old-fashioned way after e-mail systems were shut down.

ADA GREEN, Perillo Lincoln Mercury: It’s been a pain in the rear end because I haven’t been able to get in touch with my regional manager.

SPENCER MICHELS: The love bug arrives as an e- mail with three little words, “I love you.” The message reads, “Kindly check the attached love letter coming from me.” When the computer user clicks on the e-mail’s attachment, the virus replicates itself, automatically sending copies to everyone in the user’s address book. The love bug was reportedly written using Microsoft’s language, and targets users of the company’s Outlook e-mail program. Besides replicating itself, the virus can damage other computer files, including popular MP3 music files.

ALED MILES, Symantec, Ltd.: This is officially, this “love bug,” is actually officially a worm, which means that you can’t actually repair it, all you can do is delete it. And actually the love bug, if you have MPEG files, which of course are these music files so popular today, or JPEG files, which are pictures, then it can, this love bug file, infect those files.

SPENCER MICHELS: Governments have been affected, too. In London, the virus crippled the British parliament after a fashion.

MARGARET BECKETT, Member of Parliament, United Kingdom: I do not know whether to say I’m sorry or pleased, Madame Speaker. As far as I’m aware I haven’t received a mail saying I love you. I believe what has happened is that the House authorities have in fact shut the House’s e-mail down.

SPENCER MICHELS: In Washington, U.S. Government computers were infected at the Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon. This afternoon a spokesman at the Defense Department said at least two classified military systems were contaminated, but the problems were isolated, and no damage was done.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: We’ve been very fortunate. The government has fared well here. But it says that we’ve got a lot more work to do to protect all these systems in the private sector, and the government has to keep working too. It says that as we become more interconnected in an open way, that we become… as we reap the benefits of greater interconnectivity, we become more vulnerable to the disruptive forces that would seek to, either for bad design or just to provoke chaos, to take advantage of it.

SPENCER MICHELS: Copycat versions of the errant programs continue to cause distress. Computer experts believe the latest viruses have already caused billions of dollars of damage.