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The Truth About Virus Writers; Send an Online Sweetheart a Gift; Buying Insurance in the E-Market

Aired February 10, 2001 - 2:30 p.m. ET


JAMES HATTORI, CNN ANCHOR: Today, on CNNdotCOM: Bitten by the Love Bug? Mauled by Melissa? If you've been victimized by a computer virus, you might be surprised to learn that writing these destructive programs is not illegal.


SARAH GORDON, SYMANTEC: I think it's nice that I'm one of the good guys.


HATTORI: Meet a woman who's dissected thousands of viruses and shows us what goes on inside the head of a virus writer.

Got an online sweetie but can't send your Valentine because you don't know where your love lives?


ROB HANSEN, CEO, FROGMAGIC.COM: We've taken e-commerce sort of to the next level.


HATTORI: Who needs zip codes and stamps? We'll show you a way to send a gift with only an e-mail address.

Need insurance fast? You're in good hands with the World Wide Web.


OWEN THOMAS, "ECOMPANY NOW" MAGAZINE: You will be able to get a policy right on the spot and drive your car and get into an accident that evening.


HATTORI: We'll show you the ins and outs of getting insurance over the Internet.

ANNOUNCER: CNNdotCOM with James Hattori. HATTORI: Welcome to CNNdotCOM. I'm James Hattori. Computer viruses are nasty, malicious inventions created in the warped minds of antisocial geeks. At least that's the conventional wisdom.

In reality, a lot of people who write viruses mean no real harm. And while we hear about the most destructive viruses, at any given time there are hundreds of them circulating in cyberspace. So, who's creating these programs and who's fighting them?

For some answers, let's go to the realm of the virus writer.


GORDON: Primarily, when we think of virus writers, we read about them in the media. We read that they are evil, unethical teenagers all dressed in black. No social lives. No girlfriends. Smoking pot, living in the basement, basically just being pretty antisocial with the total end goal of ending civilization as we know it.

HATTORI (voice-over): Sara Gordon is no stranger to the dark side, to what motivated the virus writer.

GORDON: They do it to identify with a social group. They do it, in some cases, because they feel they've been provoked by people who say that they're stupid, unethical, malicious, dressed in black teenagers who are listening to too much Eminem and they do it because they believe people should have access to all sorts of information including viral information.

QUESTION: Sara, how many espressos have you had this afternoon?

GORDON: I don't drink coffee. I stopped two weeks ago.

HATTORI: She spent years interviewing, profiling and exchanging ideas with the so-called black hat community. In turn, they talk to her. They trust her. But Gordon is a card carrying anti-virus white hat.

(on camera): After you'd been in computers for a while, what turned on to doing virus work?

GORDON: I got a virus by accident and nobody could help me. So I started asking a lot of people, not just the quote, "the good guys," but also the bad guys, I have this problem, can you help? And they helped me, told me how to get rid of it.

HATTORI (voice-over): Gordon is an anomaly in the anti-virus industry. Unlike many of her peers, she's female. She's largely self-taught and she doesn't hesitate to discuss issues of cyberresponsibility with virus writers.

GORDON: Really smells nice.

HATTORI: Hers was not the most traditional route for a future research scientist. She grew up in an east St. Louis ghetto, and ran away from home at age 14. Perhaps her own background is the reason she doesn't judge others.

GORDON: I try not to provoke people or, you know, form some opinion. I don't have some thing I have to prove. I just want to know what's going on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We like to do this stuff because it interested us in some strange internal way we couldn't explain that we were just called to it.

HATTORI: Meet Evan, former virus writer. He doesn't want to reveal his face or even his computer handle. Evan could be the boy next door. He likes cats. Does his chores. Works legitimately in the IT world. Still, he has hobbies alien to most of us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we will sit and talk about, gee, wouldn't a virus that had a payload, an activation payload that looked for Word documents with the word confidential in the summary, and uploaded them to some site on the Internet somewhere, so that companies' confidential secrets would be leaking out. Would that be a really cool payload?

HATTORI: Evan says the viruses he wrote never did any harm. He never sent them out, and they weren't executable. While research shows a lot of virus writers act from boredom, Evan says he had different reasons.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was some credibility in front of my hacker peers to say, hey, I can code a virus and you can't. There was almost even an aspect of make them afraid of you, albeit no real threat was there. But there was the mystique of, hey, don't mess with that guy. He can give you a virus.

HATTORI: In the United States, writing viruses is not illegal. Distribution of viruses is not illegal. Nationally and internationally, it is often the designation malicious intent which separates the hobby from the crime.

GORDON: If I write a virus, I want to put it on my Web site for my friends to look at, should that be illegal? It's when you actually take it and use it to do something harmful. You know, there aren't that many people taking them to do something harmful, it's just that the Internet is so widespread that once one virus gets loose, it can spread so quickly. It object take one.

HATTORI: David Smith, author of the infamous Melissa virus, is one of the first virus writers ever to be prosecuted under computer crime laws. Melissa hit more than one million personal computers in North America, causing more than $80 million damage.

Smith has pleaded guilty to both state and federal charges, and is awaiting sentencing. Another virus, dubbed "The Love Bug," caused billions of dollars in damage worldwide. But even though the person accused of created was quickly located in the Philippines, he was not charged. What he did was not illegal in the Philippines at the time he wrote the virus. Both the virus and the anti-virus communities agree on the best protections against getting hit with a virus. High on the list, user education, taking responsibility for preventing virus attacks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The information warfare series.

HATTORI: Author and security consultant Wynn Schwartow (ph) has a book on technology and behavior. He says early intervention, talking to kids about situations they'll face in an Internet world, offers some help.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not telling you how to behave, but how would you behave in this situation and then how would you feel if somebody else behaved that same way and perhaps you were the victim? It's a two-way street. Is what's good for the goose good for the gander in cyberspace?

HATTORI: Accord to Evan, we trust the computer too much, forgetting that it's people who call the shots.

HATTORI (on camera): If your computer were to exhibit some virus...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If my computer were to suddenly start exhibiting weird virus-like tendencies.

HATTORI: You wouldn't be ticked off?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I should know better. I had to run that code somehow. I definitely would bear a certain amount of responsibility for having run that code.

HATTORI: How many viruses are there here?

GORDON: Well, individual viruses, probably if you count variants, maybe 100,000.

HATTORI: You have in this room.

GORDON: Yes, different places on different hard drives and I've got boxes of disks and they're stacked up.

HATTORI: A hundred thousand?

GORDON: Hi, girl. I think it's nice that I'm one of the good guys. I think that's probably a good thing.

HATTORI (voice-over): Not surprisingly, Gordon says computers and technology haunt her dreams. As the number of people on-line grows, the number of occurrences of infection grows as well. Gordon cautions that if you're using the computer, you will most likely get hit. Former virus writer Evan agrees.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In my mind, I see the field of a genetically perfect cow and the farmer gets up and comes out in the morning and all the cows are dead because this virus came in, there was no diversity in the herd and they're all dead. And the same thing is happening and has been happening with corporate desktops.

HATTORI: Evan feels no guilt about his past. That he never made his virus codes executable, he says. absolves him of any wrong-doing. What bother him is the current crop of viruses and virus writers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're not sophisticated people, and they're not thinking about what they're doing on any more of a macro scale that to say that, oh, I'll get my name out there. I'll be cool. I'll have notoriety. It's spam. There aren't new techniques coming out anymore. At least that's the general feel that I'm getting. I sound like the crotchety old man, these kids today.

GORDON: Meanwhile, Sarah Gordon continues to straddle two hostile but interdependent worlds. She says her goal has never been to stop virus writers in their tracks. Still, when even one quits, she breathes a bit easier.


HATTORI: If you also want to breathe easier, Sarah Gordon suggests buying anti-virus software that automatically updates itself with the latest virus information. But she says the program won't work if you don't take it out of the box.

We'll have more on virus detection programs later in our "Just One Question" segment. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

Later on CNNDOTCOM, they're not playing at eToys. The Internet retailer is about to pull the plug, becoming the latest example of Darwinism.

But next:


KIM ZETTER, SR. FEATURES EDITOR, "PC WORLD": I though well, maybe there's some magic thing going on.


HATTORI: No, it's not magic. But it could make magic happen between you and your online romance. Find out how when CNNdotCOM continues.


HATTORI: It's the month for Valentines, according to all the greeting cards, and love is in bloom, even in cyberspace. Now, suppose you want to send your online friend a dozen roses or a box of chocolates, but you're too shy to ask for a mailing address? Well, we've got a way to send a gift, and you don't need anything more than an e-mail address, except maybe a credit card.

Bruce Burkhardt has this week's "Nothin' But Net."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BRUCE BURKHARDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's Valentine's Day wooing, cyberstyle. Sending your sweetie a gift using an online shopping site is hardly a new idea, but what about doing it when you don't know the person's home address, their phone number or even their name? How? Magic.

HANSEN: makes it possible for people to send tangible, real world gifts, like chocolate, flowers and jewelry, to anyone just using their e-mail address as the actual delivery address.

BURKHARDT: The premise behind is to send real world gifts via the virtual world of the Internet. Here's how it works. Log on to and click on a gift you'd like to send. Type in your e-mail address, the recipients e-mail address and click send. Love, in the digital age.

HANSEN: What happens next is the recipient gets that instant Frogmagic gift notification by the method that they've chosen. Usually that's e-mail, but it could go to their cell phone or their pager or their instant messenger, and they're alerted to the fact that a gift is on the way that we'd like to have a gift be on the way. They then get to enter their information or choose from their saved deliver profiles where they'd like to have the gift sent.

ZETTER: Initially, I thought when they told that me you could send a gift to someone and just know their e-mail address, I thought well, maybe there's no magic thing going on. Maybe they're getting -- connecting e-mail addresses with actual physical addresses, something like that. But it's actually more simple than that. They actually send a message to the recipient and ask them for their shipping address.

BURKHARDT: Buy flowers, chocolates, jewelry and other love tokens. Prices range from $2 to several thousand.

ZETTER: It's not the gifts themselves. It's sort of the idea of the recipient receiving it and deciding whether or not they want to accept it and, you know, it's the anticipation and the surprise of getting something from someone you may not know.

BURKHARDT: It's virtual flirting with a decidedly traditional feel.

HANSEN: In the off-line, in the real world, it's a very important part of the human experience to be able to exchange gifts. It's to express appreciation. It's to make sure that the other person knows that you care and until now, that's been virtually impossible to do in the online world.

BURKHARDT: Frogmagic was inspired in part by Rob's own cyberromance.

HANSEN: A number of years ago, back when it wasn't as popular to meet people online, I did. I met my wife online.

BURKHARDT: That this week's "Nothin' but Net." (END VIDEOTAPE)

HATTORI: Up next, it's been described as a VCR for your digital photos. Thinking inside the box, with your photographic memories.

That and more, as CNNDOTCOM continues.


HATTORI: The digital highway is littered with skeletons from many a All you have to do is scan the morning business page for evidence. The Internet is proving Darwin's theory. It's survival of the fittest. So, we decided to introduce an occasional segment. We call it "Dot.Com Darwinism," to give you the lowdown on endangered, dying and extinct Web sites.

Here's Natalie Pawelski.


NATALIE PAWELSKI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The fun and games are coming to an end at eToys. The online toy seller is laying off its remaining 300 or so workers, and it expects to shut down operations in the spring. Etoys was riding high on the stock market in 1999 with shares as high as $90. But last Christmas was not kind to the retailer, and now the stock is selling for pennies not dollars.

There's good news in this for kids: Huge savings on the eToys Web site. Alert your parents.

Women are uniting, virtually. iVillage, a struggling online network aimed at females has agreed to buy a similar site that's apparently even worse off, Both have suffered declining ad sales, but iVillage CEO Doug McCormick says the merger will create a category killer in online women's sites. Of course, there's not a whole lot left in the category to kill.

That's "Dot.Com Darwinism."


HATTORI: Have you ever wanted to be on TV? Well, now you can be or at least pictures of you can be, thanks to a new gadget that lets you edit and organize your digital photos right on your own television.

Rick Lockridge has the big picture in this week's "Technofile."


RICK LOCKRIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Digital photos should be as easy to show off as they are to take. But you've got to be near a computer. You've got to hook up your cables. Oh, what a hassle. You want a gadget that will let you manage your photo collection from the comfort of your favorite TV lounge chair. And the Fotoshow gives you just that. ROB PUZEY, PRODUCTS MANAGER, IOMEGA CORP.: The TV is the most natural device in your house to share digital photos. It's in a very comfortable living room, and everyone in the room can see the same photo at the same time.

LOCKRIDGE: The Fotoshow by Iomega has been described as a VCR for your digital photos.

PUZEY: I'm going to take a photo. This Canon digital camera is saving the image on to a Compaq flash card. Insert it into Fotoshow, and with the press of a single button, the photo immediately shows up on the television set.

LOCKRIDGE: No computer is needed. You just use the handheld remote to rotate photos, resize them, even get the redeye out. This is one gizmo that's long overdue. If you can overlook the $300 price tag, it'll give you a new and much more convenient way to share and enjoy your photos.

I'm Rick Lockridge, and that's "Technofile."


HATTORI: Still ahead on THE DOT, insure your car, your house, even your health, online. We'll tell you how to buy a policy without ever talking to an insurance agent.

That and more, when CNNdotCOM continues.


HATTORI: Welcome back. When you think of buying things in the Internet, insurance may not come immediately to mind. But the Web might be able to simplify the process of finding just the right policy, if you've got the proper "Tools."


THOMAS: It's a really complex product. You know, it's not like selling books or CD's. You can't just ship it out to people.

HATTORI: Is it possible today to get an insurance policy without ever dealing with an agent whatsoever?

THOMAS: Absolutely. For certain types of insurance, like auto insurance, you will be able to get a policy right on the spot and drive your car and get into an accident that evening. Other forms of insurance, it really depends on the state. Certain states such as Massachusetts don't let you get an insurance policy without dealing with a broker.

HATTORI: If you wanted to look at what there is offered, where's a good place to start?

THOMAS: Insurers have their own Web sites, for one. You can get a lot of customer service information. You can sign up to have e-mail updates. You can even pay your premiums online. Then there are insurance marketplaces, where you can apply once and get several quotes back from multiple insurers.

Quicken Insurance, they have an insurance marketplace where you can get quotes from all kinds of insurers. You actually get quite a range of prices. This is clearly, you know, an industry that's not seen a lot of direct price comparison. Let's look at a life policy. As you can see, it can vary as much as...

HATTORI: For the same coverage...

THOMAS: ... a hundred percent. Honestly, after the first time I did this, I was left wondering, what am I actually getting if the price varies that much? And...

HATTORI: Well, theoretically, it should be the same thing, right?

THOMAS: There are certain differences. Like, this cheap policy doesn't have a disability waiver or an accidental death option.

HATTORI: Health insurance is very -- kind of touchy for people. I would have trouble buying it online.

THOMAS: It's tricky. You do have to reveal a lot of personal information about various medical conditions to get a health insurance policy. Then again, you also have to do that to get a life insurance policy. There is a site, eHealthInsurance, that does a pretty good job of telling you about the plans that are out there. It's hard to get a good deal on health insurance online simply because it's hard to get a good deal on health insurance everywhere.

HATTORI: What's the biggest impact that the Internet has had on the insurance industry?

THOMAS: The changes that the Internet is making in industries like insurance are really happening behind the scenes. They're making the companies more efficient, better competitors. They'll be able to withstand this kind of brutal price competition because they're saving money internally using the Internet. So what the Internet takes, you know, with one hand, you know, it gives with the other.

HATTORI: For more information on online insurance, log on to


HATTORI: Still to come, today's "Nerdword." It might even open your eyes. Stay tuned.


HATTORI: You may be dusting off your antivirus software after watching our cover story. But sometimes these programs designed to protect your system protect it a little too much, forcing you to disable the software in order to install certain new programs, for instance.

So we decided to ask Web security expert David Endler "Just One Question." Why is antivirus software often so annoying?


DAVID ENDLER, IDEFENSE: It gets really annoying when you try to install some software, and you get a warning. So, you just turn your antivirus software off. And in our day and age, when we're presented with warning boxes, I think the tendency is to click OK.

Really, one of the problems in addition to having an updated virus signature, is to having an educated user populous practicing safe computing standards such as looking at the attachments, looking at the complete title, having backups of your software. There is a good chance that you will be infected by a virus eventually.


HATTORI: And finally, today's "Nerdword. Wake up and smell the: "Mapuccino." No, it's not some new half-caf, light on the latte, double espresso, mocha-whipped beverage available only at cybercafes. And it's not what star stalkers use to track down actor Al Pacino.

Mapuccino is an IBM-designed Java applet, or small program, that can show a visual map of how a Web site is organized. For example, if you want to get a map view of a particular site, Mapuccino will quickly access the Web files and create personalized views for convenient browsing and quick reference.

Appropriately enough, the fetch application to search for results while using Mapuccino is called Fetuccino. Well, all this faux-food talk must have you hungry for our cover story next week: A high-tech approach to motivating students. No more teach and test, these students learn and do.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not like we do useless homework night after night after night.


HATTORI: A high school that's all business.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I like to describe technology at Cart as mission critical.


HATTORI: In an area anxious for new opportunity. That's next time. Until then, we could learn a lesson or two from you. Drop us an e-mail. Our address is:

And check out our Web page at

That's all for this time. Thanks for the download. For all of us at THE DOT, I'm James Hattori.



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