The insidious bite of the Love Bug

May 10, 2000|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- 'Tis spring, a time when a young computer hacker's fancy has turned to thoughts of love. As a result -- Whammo! -- hundreds of thousands of computers around the world have been bollixed up with an "I love you" e-mail.

Surely you have heard the warnings by now: If you receive an e-mail message that says "ILOVEYOU" in its subject line, delete it. Otherwise, you may be looking for love in the wrong places.

The wicked little "Love Bug" virus, as it has been nicknamed, can eat your files, steal your passwords and try to mess up the lives of everyone you ever cared enough about to put into your address book.

In other words, it will behave the way a lot of real-life lovers do.

I usually don't pay much attention to computer virus stories. In a modern variation on my late, sainted mother's advice, I do not open e-mail attachments from strangers.

But this particular virus shows more fiendish brilliance behind it than do most. The mischievous brain behind it knew not only about the power of computer bugs, but also about something far more powerful: love.

Diane Ackerman, author of "A Natural History of Love," agrees. After she was victimized by the virus, she told the Washington Post, "I would love to know what person devised this and was so shrewd as to realize how well it would work."

So would the FBI. The Love Bug is one of the most disruptive computer viruses in history. It spreads even more quickly than Melissa, an earlier record-holder that accessed only the first 50 addresses in each user's address book. The "Love Bug" sends itself to every address in the user's book, zapping itself to thousands of other computers in a flash.

But the Love Bug's real genius is not in its technical power but in its emotional impact. You need a big punch to break through the firewall of resistance that e-mail users have built up by now against junk offers of money, weight loss, pornography and sure-thing stock tips. To break through that wall, do any words carry more weight than a simple, "I love you"?

Breathes there a man or woman with heart so dead that they would not have said to themselves something like, "Hmmm ... could it be from that cute babe in the human resources office who wears the cranberry lipstick?" Or, "Gee, maybe it's that mailroom guy with all of the piercings in his ear?"

Yes, for a brief fleeting moment, at least, in the midst of a dull work day hunched over one's computer screen, the Love Bug recipient can feel that most glorious of ecstasies, the feeling that somebody, somewhere, thinks they are hot.

Which must make you feel mightily left out, if you are a Love Bug wallflower.

You even may succumb to a condition one of my office colleagues calls "Love Bug envy." It hits you when you realize you have no "I love you" notes in your e-mail while everyone else is receiving theirs. It can make you feel like the only kid in class to receive no cards on St. Valentine's Day.

What, you may wonder, does it say about you? In a world where everyone is theoretically no more than six degrees of separation from anyone else, should not every e-mail user have been hit in the first 24 hours? Are you so unpopular that you can't even get infected by the Love Bug? Are you a cybernetic Rodney Dangerfield? A wallflower in the Global Village?

You could even find yourself fibbing to cover up. ("The Love Bug? Oh, yeah! Sure! I got dozens of them! Wiped out my whole hard drive!")

Sad. Even sadder is that nagging suspicion that lingers in your mind after you have zapped that "ILOVEYOU" message off your screen without opening it: What if it was legit?

You do have to wonder about the diabolical mind that came up not only with this devilish virus but also with its hard-to-resist come-on. What made him or her so demonically cynical about love? Was it a sour love affair?

Maybe the Love Bug's creator was trying to teach us some sort of twisted lesson, Unabomber style, about letting our keyboard fingers do all of our talking for us. Indeed, the Love Bug does show us how, in affairs of the heart, you can get burned just as easily over the Internet as in face-to-face contact.

Whoever the Love Bug vandal may be, I hope they are nabbed and properly prosecuted. As acurrent series of credit-cardcommercials might put it, the damage in dollars has been billions; the cost in emotional letdown: priceless.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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