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The 20-year hunt for the man behind the Love Bug Virus

Just a few months earlier, the world had worried about the risk of something called Y2K – the fear that computers would not be able to handle moving data in the 1900s to the 2000s. The damage predictions were massively exaggerated and the vast majority of the systems were not affected. But just as the tech industry took a deep breath, the Love Bug virus showed the true extent of the havoc that could be caused in an increasingly connected world. Estimates of the damage ran into tens of billions of dollars, much of which was spent on repairing infected computers and preventing re-infection. Once released, anyone could download and optimize the virus code: within a few days, the researchers saw dozens of copycat versions being released.

As the news coverage grew shrill, investigators went to work to determine the cause of the failure. The passwords stolen by the virus were sent to an email address registered in the Philippines. Local police traced the email account to an apartment in Manila. The network closed.

After an initial interview, they identified an Onel de Guzman, a 23-year-old computer science student at AMA Computer College who was studying on the Makati campus, a gloomy, gray concrete building in the center of town. The virus had mentioned the sentence GrammersoftInvestigators quickly discovered that it was an underground hacking cell made up of AMA students, some of whom had started experimenting with viruses. De Guzman was a senior member.

As journalists flocked to town, de Guzman̵

7;s attorney hastily organized a press conference so the world’s media could direct their questions to the man who was increasingly believed to be at the center of the global virus outbreak. Apparently frightened, De Guzman hid behind dark glasses and held a handkerchief over his face that covered his prominent acne scars. He held onto his sister Irene, who lived in the apartment the police had originally searched. Flashes popped and news cameras zoomed in as de Guzman took his seat. But anyone who expected clarification was soon disappointed. De Guzman’s lawyer answered many of the questions with vague no-answers.

De Guzman himself did not seem to speak much English. Eventually, one of the assembled media outlets managed to ask a key question: Could de Guzman accidentally release the virus?

“It is possible,” muttered de Guzman.

And that was it. There were no more questions. The press conference ended, and de Guzman’s lone non-response came the closest to explaining a virus that infected 45 million machines worldwide.

De Guzman was never prosecuted as the Philippines had no law against computer hacking at the time. Soon the cameras packed up, the news crews left, and the story slipped off the agenda.

Since the true author was not confirmed, suspicions fell on de Guzman’s school friend Michael Buen, whose name had appeared on a previous virus called Mykl-B. Buen denied having anything to do with the Love Bug outbreak, but his appeals were largely ignored. Most online sources still list de Guzman and Buen together or separately as the originators of the virus, and it has been for the last 20 years. Until now.

The little basilica of the Black Nazarene is one of Manila’s most revered Catholic shrines, and shadowing it is the labyrinthine expanse of the Quiapo Market, where everything from Hello Kitty backpacks to LED-lit Virgin Mary statuettes can be found. Here I looked for Onel de Guzman on a hint.

Finally the friendly stall holder who remembered him took me across town to another shopping district. I went down another rabbit hole from market stalls and flashed the piece of paper with de Guzman’s name on it, which looked like a tourist father who had lost his children. After many vacant looks and suspicious questions, a bored looking trader pointed me towards a nearby commercial unit. It was empty, but after waiting 10 hours for him to come to work, I finally saw myself across from Onel de Guzman.

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