Panorama puts teenage hackers under the microscope

Teenage hackers pose a serious threat to governments and world trade, acccording to BBC investigative programme Panorama

The BBC's flagship investigative programme, Panorama, on Monday attempted to unravel some of the mystery surrounding the Love Bug worm, implicating one young Filipino and revealing that the biggest threat to governments and world trade is teenage hackers.

The worm -- which some commentators estimate could have cost big business up to £8bn -- is alleged to be the work of teenagers studying at a computer college in Manila.

Released on 4 May, the worm spread around the world at an unprecedented rate, deleting files and attempting to steal network passwords while replicating.

Another teenager living in Canada was recently accused of launching the largest ever denial of service attack on some of the Internet's most lucrative Web sites in February.

Using a number of compromised computers and specially designed software, sites including CNN, Amazon and eBay were rendered inoperable for hours. Like the Love Bug, this attack is also believed to have cost millions of dollars in lost revenue. It is economic drain and the threat to national security that is causing growing concern in the US and here in the UK.

Key to the Panorama report was an interview with Michael Buen, believed to be part of the young hacking gang implicated in the Love Bug outbreak.

Buen has always denied his involvement, claiming he was not able to write viruses. This fact was disputed by the Panorama reporter who presented Buen with a virus that was discovered in the wild by anti-virus company Sophos some months before the Love Bug outbreak.

The virus contained a copy of Buen's CV and the following statement: "Warning! If I don't get a stable job by the end of the month, I will release a third virus that will remove all folders in the primary hard disc."

According to Sophos senior technical consultant Graham Cluley the conclusion is obvious: "I suspect Buen is the author of that virus. He probably didn't write Love Bug but one of his associates did."

It is not always so easy to identify hackers, Cluley points out: "It is not very common to get a virus which prints out the author's CV. I have never seen a virus writer be so stupid."

Onel de Guzman has been charged with writing the Love Bug virus but as there were no laws against cyber crime in the Philippines at the time of the attack it is unlikely he will face more than one year in jail. It is also unlikely the US will be able to start extradition procedures.

In fact, according to the programme, in the under-privileged suburbs of Manila, the Love Bug author has become something of a celebrity, putting the Philippines on the cyber map and encouraging youngsters to enrol on computer courses. "After Buen was questioned about the Love Bug he was headhunted by a number of companies," says Cluley.

Cluley is worried that hacking may be about to gain street cred. "This really gives a very bad image I think, an impression to youngsters that virus writing is cool. You can get yourself famous and you can have a great time and maybe get a good job out of it," he says. "We'd much prefer if people were told virus writers are scum bags."

Will Knight contributed to this report.

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