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Belgian Law Bites Gigabyte

Teenage, female virus writer busted in Belgium was famous for speaking out about coding exploits.
By Becky Worley, Tech Live
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The 19-year-old female virus writer known as Gigabyte got an unexpected Valentine's Day gift this year. She was arrested Feb. 14 in her hometown of Mechelen, Belgium.

Belgian police reportedly charged Gigabyte with 11 counts of computer data sabotage under a law written in 2000 to deal with computer crimes. She now faces a three-year prison sentence and nearly $200,000 in fines.

According to Belgium's La Libre Belgique, police said she was preparing to publish new viruses on her website, which was shut down after her arrest. Police also reportedly confiscated her five computers.

Gigabyte's real name has not been released, but the university student is thought to be responsible for creating four viruses: Quis, Coconut, Sahay, and Sharp, or Sharpei, the first virus written in Microsoft .Net's C# language. None of the viruses caused widespread damage like Blaster or Code Red, but Gigabyte was known for posting the code on her website (Google cached version) for all to see -- or begin sending.

In an exclusive 2002 interview with "Tech Live," Gigabyte wouldn't show her face, but she compared posting the code to the ethics of making guns.

"That's not my problem," she said of the freely available code. "When people make guns, can you blame them when someody [sic] else kills [somebody] with them? I only write them. I don't release them."

Coconuts for Cluley

Gigabyte's code often carried more message than malice. She often spoke out against Microsoft, she offered potential victims a way to clean their computers of her viruses, and she once wrote a worm to disinfect computers infected with the Yaha virus.

Her Coconut virus was sent as a game where you could throw coconuts at noted virus expert Graham Cluley. Each time you hit him, one less file on your PC would be infected.

The war with Cluley, a spokesman for antivirus firm Sophos, started when he characterized Vxers (virus writers) as pimply teenage boys who lacked social skills. Gigabyte found that insulting to the virus-writing community, and her existence as a female virus writer disproved Cluley's gender generalization.

"I mean, yeah, I do want to admit I'm female, because there is nothing to hide about it," she told "Tech Live" in a 2002 interview. "The world should know there are female virus writers out there. But it's certainly not my motivation for virus writing. I do this for myself, not for the whole world. Other females don't need me to stand up for them. They can do it for themselves."

Sophos posted a statement on its website after Gigabyte's arrest in which security analyst Carole Theriault reflected on Gigabyte's reputation.

"Being an outspoken female in a male-dominated arena, as well as her strange relationship with my colleague, Graham Cluley, has made her a favourite for the media," the statement reads. "The simple fact is that writing and distributing viruses is not cool, and one wonders why such a young and obviously clever girl would flirt with the path of a common criminal."

Coder with a conscience

Gigabyte's viruses were usually full of mischief and jokes. In one of our recent email discussions, she explained her take on social engineering -- the use of serious and timely subjects to entice users to double-click attachments containing malicious code.

"I find it incredibly mean and unrespectful [sic] to abuse subjects like the 9/11 incident and SARS," she wrote. "You just don't do something like that. People opening these emails may be aware of the fact that opening e-mail attachments is unsafe, but ignore the danger for once, because the subject is too important to them... and then they get infected... Nah, *I* would never take advantage of a situation like that. But apparently there are people who do."

Gigabyte had strong opinions on many subjects related to virus writing and computer security. She saw Microsoft's recently announced $250,000 bounty to catch the MyDoom virus writer as a desperate public relations move.

"Actually," she wrote, "I think it really shows how scared MS is about bad publicity regarding all the bugs in their [sic] software, which can be abused in viruses."

Sophisticated, but still a kid

Gigabyte says she started writing viruses when she was a 14-year-old member of the Metaphase VX team, a loose affiliation of virus writers who communicate online. She began programming computers at age 6, when she started toying with the code in her uncle's Commodore 64.

Gigabyte remained active in the VX community, and in 2003 contacted me for input on an article she was writing for, the online virus writer's zine she maintained. Her questions were thoughtful and belied a desire to understand what the world thinks of virus writers.

My personal take on her arrest: She's a virus writer, but not the worst one. Did she write viruses? Yes. Did she communicate openly with the media? Yes. Did she write viruses that caused millions of dollars worth of damages? No.

As much as I think viruses are destructive, I hope this teenager is granted some leniency. I also hope that international authorities are better able to track down truly malicious virus writers, and that eventually this annoying digital plague fades away.

Originally aired February 18, 2004

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