'Love bug' infects Estonia

  • 2000-05-11
  • By Jaclyn M. Sindrich
TALLINN - The affectionate instruction - "Kindly check the attached LOVELETTER coming from me" - is now synonymous with a darker side of the Internet: system-crippling computer viruses.

And as ILOVEYOU, the most destructive and infamous virus ever, dynamically mushroomed last week infecting at least 20 countries according to reports, tech-happy Estonia was bound to be a victim.

Early May 4, when the message began flooding into the inboxes of Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express users, countless e-mail servers worldwide were forced to shut down, including those of the Estonian Parliament, Uhispank and Hansapank.

Information technology director at Microlink, Tonis Laasik, described the LoveLetter virus' behavior as "totally different" from any he had seen before. He explained that previous viruses, such as Melissa, were detected earlier and screened out. But the speed with which the so-called love bug spread was so fast that warnings often came too late.

With the virus' simple and amorous subject line, the unsuspecting were inevitably more likely to open the attachment.

And millions did, as the virus then copied itself to everyone in the servers' address books, while overwriting all "jpg" images and audio "mp3" files in their computers, leaving computers in a potentially unbootable state.

"I was one of the silly ones who opened it," said Mari-Ann Kelam, Pro Patria Union MP. Since viruses often masquerade under fellow co-workers or friends' addresses which also use the server, unwitting recipients are still more easily fooled into opening the attachments.

"I used to sneer all the time at these e-mails that said, 'Don't open these messages.' I thought these warnings were becoming a virus themselves," Kelam joked. Now, she might regard the warnings a bit more seriously.

Yet it seems even the warnings themselves must be scrutinized. Computer viruses, the world has learned, all too often tend to mutate like a cancer.

Within the first day of ILOVEYOU's infection around the globe, copycat viruses sprung up under the guises of a joke, a timely receipt for a Mother's Day gift - and even one which put the spotlight on a possible connection to the Baltics. This variation read "Susitikem," which means "Let's meet" in Lithuanian. Its subject line: "Susitikem shi vakara kavos puodukui," meaning "Let's meet this evening for coffee."

As far as how well prepared Estonia is to deal with these attacks, IT experts say that while the country is technologically advanced, few systems anywhere in the world are equipped to prevent attacks of the LoveLetter's kind.

"I think if we compare how much computers are used, we are not very well planned or organized," said Laasik. He noted that one of the advantages for Estonia regarding the love bug was that many computers here are using non-Windows applications, such as Netscape and Linux-based mail systems, rendering the Outlook server problems irrelevant.

While experts acknowledged vulnerability to viruses, they also insisted ILOVEYOU's damages, at least in Estonia, were exaggerated.

"The attack was potentially serious," said Tono Liik, Uhispank's IT manager, emphasizing "potentially."

Government spokesman Kaarel Tarand declared Estonia's IT capabilities as among the best in the world. Indeed, many businesses escaped unharmed, as workers had been educated on the signs of potential viruses. For example, the Tallinn Stock Exchange received several of the ILOVEYOU e-mails, "but no one opened them," said international relations director Eva Palu.

Kelam also agreed that the actual damage inflicted was negligible, saying that "[Parliament's] tech department is up to snuff." Yet the blow may have been bigger for those who had the targeted mp3 and jpeg images on their computer without backups and mistakenly unleashed the virus.

Despite the current anti-virus screening measures, "there is always this human factor," said Irkki Leego, head of Parliament's IT department.

Authorities have now arrested a man traced to the virus' believed beginnings in the Philippines.