When Windows Caught the LoveBug

By Brian Prince  |  Posted 2010-05-04 Print this article Print

It would be the definition of an understatement to say the security landscape of a decade ago differed from today. In the year 2000, spam accounted for just 1 in 120 e-mails. Rustock did not exist, and Conficker was not even a figment of our collective imaginations.

And then came the LoveBug. From the moment it appeared May 4, 2000, the worm tore down the defenses of Windows computers, eventually infecting millions of Microsoft customers worldwide and causing the Pentagon, CIA and British parliament to shut down their mail systems to contain the damage.

Alex Shipp remembers those days. Formerly of MessageLabs, Shipp is now senior antivirus technologist and imaginer for Symantec Hosted Services, and said the worm's outbreak left an indelible mark on the security industry.

"LoveBug was the first big-spreading virus, so there was no user awareness and no experience in the AV community of fast spreading e-mail malware," Shipp said. "At the time, the AV used by most people was pretty much reliant on signatures. LoveBug was an example of good social engineering to a big pool of e-mail users with 'infect-able' Windows machines. Additionally, Microsoft VBA script was easy to use and very powerful."

The worm arrived in e-mails with the subject line "ILOVEYOU" via an attachment titled "LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.TXT.vbs." The malware authors used a flawed Microsoft algorithm to hide the final vbs extension, tricking victims into thinking they were opening a text file. Once opened, the worm sent copies of itself to everyone in the victim's Microsoft Outlook address book. It also added registry keys directing Windows to download and execute a password-stealing program known as "WIN-BUGSFIX.EXE" or "Microsoftv25.exe."

"LoveBug was written in VB Script, and the source code was readily available," Shipp said. "This resulted in dozens and dozens of copycat viruses appearing soon afterward, some in other languages, including JavaScript."

As a result, traditional antivirus vendors needed to provide a unique signature of each copy, forcing vendors to take a new approach.

"Antivirus signatures - the common approach to virus detection in 2000 - were only able to protect against known malware," he explained. "New viruses were frequently not detected using this method, but [MessageLabs'] application of heuristics-enabled rules scores an e-mail based on certain characteristics. Depending on what these characteristics were, the score could vary and analysis could become more aggressive before certain thresholds were triggered and the e-mail would be blocked."

The bug was eventually traced to two Filipino computer programming students. However, because the Philippines had no laws against computer crimes on the book, the students had to be let go. This led to the Philippine Congress passing the Republic Act No. 8792, otherwise known as the E-Commerce Law, in July of 2000.

"Today some highly effective legislature exists to combat online crime," Shipp said. "In the UK, the Police and Justice Act 2006 included updates to the Computer Misuse Act 1990 to keep pace with the latest changes in technology; these changes ensured that an Act that predated the Internet was brought up to date. The EU also introduced Directive 2002/58, known as the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, or ePrivacy Directive. It was introduced to deal with the regulation of confidentiality of information, traffic data, spam and other data privacy concerns."

In a blog post from last year, Sophos Senior Technology Consultant Graham Cluley recalled his memories of how May 4, 2000, unfolded and how the worm's authors dodged justice.

"It was an inspired piece of social engineering and flooded email systems around the world, as users were either tricked into believing they were receiving a romantic note, or believed it was something funny coming from their bosses or colleagues," he wrote earlier today.

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