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Lessons from the First Computer Pandemic: Love Bug
Twenty years ago, the world's first computer pandemic called the "Love Bug", also known as "ILOVEYOU" virus, wreaked havoc worldwide.
On May 4, 2000, in just a span of 24 hours, the Love Bug affected an estimated 45 million computers worldwide, causing an estimated US$10 billion in damages.
Tracking Down the Creator of ILOVEYOU Virus
BBC technology reporter Geoff White tracked down the creator of the ILOVEYOU virus working in a mobile phone repair shop inside a shopping mall in Manila. Onel de Guzman, now 44, admitted to White that he solely created the ILOVEYOU virus.
de Guzman told White that he unleashed the virus to steal passwords so he could access the internet without paying. He claims that he never intended the virus to spread globally and that he regrets the damage that the virus had caused. de Guzman was never charged with a crime as at the time when he unleashed the virus, the Philippines had no laws criminalizing malicious use of computers.
How the ILOVEYOU Virus Caused a Computer Pandemic
The ILOVEYOU virus arrives on the victim's computer via Outlook software. At the time, Outlook was the common means of sending and receiving emails.
The email's subject simply contains "ILOVEYOU", while the email's body contains these few words: "kindly check the attached LOVELETTER coming from me". The email contains an attachment named "LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.TXT". "I figured out that many people want a boyfriend, they want each other, they want love, so I called it that," de Guzman said.
Once an email receiver clicks on the attached document, the virus makes copies of itself to the Windows System directory and to the Windows directory. It also adds itself to the registry for it to be executed when the system is restarted.
It also replaces the Internet Explorer home page with a link that downloads the program called "WIN-BUGSFIX.exe". This downloaded file is also added to the registry for this program to be executed once the system is restarted.
The downloaded file from the web is a password-stealing malicious software (malware) that calls the WNetEnumCashedPasswords function and sends stolen RAS passwords and all cached Windows passwords to this email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This virus spreads to other victims' computers via Outlook. The same email that arrives on the original victim's computer is mass emailed to everyone in the victim's Outlook address book. This virus spreads also via mIRC whenever another person joins an IRC channel where the infected user currently is logged in.
Other than stealing passwords and spreading itself, this virus performs the most destruction function: overwriting files. This virus looks for particular file types from all folders in all local and remote drives and overwrites them.
Similar to modern-day ransomware – malware that prevents victims' from accessing their computers or files, the ILOVEYOU virus denies victims access to their files. Unlike ransomware, where in some cases, the decryption keys given by attackers after ransom payment work in unlocking in locked files, in the ILOVEYOU virus, there's no way to unlock these files.
Many organizations lost a lot of data because of this overwrite function. The mass emailing function of the virus also overloaded many mail systems around the world.
Will There Be Another Computer Pandemic?
Time will tell if there'll be another computer pandemic.
If there'll be one it would be a bit different from de Guzman's creation. An attacker aiming to use a mass emailing virus via Outlook and other mail client software needs to take an extra step to run malicious attachments as current mail client software programs are more cautious in running script files unlike in the days when the ILOVEYOU virus was unleashed.
To date, the damage caused by the ILOVEYOU virus is unprecedented. The virus successfully played on mankind's need to be loved. In today's environment, where many are connected to the internet, another virus could turn into a computer pandemic, exploiting another of mankind's other needs.
The ILOVEYOU virus has taught the online world one thing: Next time, back up your files. Having a working back up prepares your organization for the next computer pandemic similar to the ILOVEYOU virus that overwrites or destroys victims' files.
There's also a need to protect these backups from attackers. In recent months, ransomware attackers have been known to go after victims' backups.
The group behind the ransomware called "DoppelPaymer" published on their leak site the admin username and password for a non-paying ransomware victim who used the Veeam cloud backup software. The group behind the ransomware called "eCh0raix" also went after QNAP NAS backup devices.
Protect your organization's backup devices by keeping it offline. If there's a need to connect these backup devices online, make sure to use strong authentication methods such as multi-factor authentication and to keep the backup device firmware up to date.
It’s also important to follow the time-tested 3-2-1 rule:
3: Keep 3 copies of any important file: 1 primary and 2 backups.
2: Keep the files on 2 different media types to protect against different types of hazards.
1: Store 1 copy offsite (for example, cloud backup).
Another attack scenario could come from a silent operator. The ILOVEYOU virus and the different shades of ransomware are overtly noticeable attacks. The next big thing or even one that we haven't noticed yet, could be one that silently lurks in millions of computers worldwide.
Steve E. Driz, I.S.P., ITCP