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Female Hacker Packs Punch

Exclusive: Meet 'Gigabyte,' the teen Belgian virus writer who nailed Microsoft's .Net. Find out more, Wednesday 4/24 at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on 'Tech Live.'
By Rick Lockridge, Tech Live New York bureau chief
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gigabyte hacker (story)MECHLIN, Belgium -- She can kick your butt and wipe your hard drive cleaner than a dog's dinner plate. So when the young kickboxer and virus writer known as "Gigabyte" tells you she doesn't want her face on TV, well, you play along. Tonight's "Tech Live" tells her story.

"I'll just shoot you from behind," I say, carrying my TV camera across the large mat that covers the health club's gymnasium floor. It's almost time for the 6 p.m. kickboxing class, and Gigabyte is the only woman there.

Of course, she's used to that. In the male-dominated world of virus writers, she stands out. And not only because of her gender. She is also something of a virus-writing prodigy, having started programming at age six.

"I figured out how to write a few lines of code on my uncle's Commodore 64," says Gigabyte, who just recently celebrated her 18th birthday. "Later, I wanted to learn more about programming, so I went to the store and asked for books. The salespeople were surprised. It was like: 'Why do you want a book? Why don't you just buy a game and go play?' But games are not very interesting to me. I wanted to learn how to write real executable programs."

So she did.

'Sharpei' attacks

At age 14, she wrote her first computer worm, which took over the shutdown screens of infected users.

Two years later, she wrote a powerful virus that mangles MP3 files. And recently she became only the second person to write a virus in C# (pronounced "C sharp"), the language of Microsoft's new .Net platform.

Her so-called "Sharpei" worm, which comes in an email attachment, claims to be a Microsoft software update that can result in a "50 percent speed increase." Instead, it is a computer worm that spreads via Microsoft's Outlook email program and infects certain files in computers where the .Net framework is present.

"I think I must have really pissed [Microsoft] off," she says, "but I don't know, because they didn't react."

"That's because I didn't release 'Sharp' [her name for the virus] in the wild," Gigabyte says. "I wish I had finished it before .Net released. I would have liked to see the virus get out before the software even came out. That would have been funny."

Microsoft said, "the 'Sharpei' virus does not represent a breach in the security infrastructure of the .Net Framework. The .Net Framework security infrastructure is operating as it should, in line with the default policies. The infected user elected to install an executable received in email, thus granting the executable full trust. Users should never install executables they receive by email. In fact, Microsoft Outlook prevents users from doing so."

Keeping it out of the wild

Gigabyte is quick to remind visitors that she never releases her viruses into the wild. Instead, she sends them to antivirus companies, hoping for the kind of affirmation that only comes with a "high-risk" designation.

But she also has posted her viruses on her homepage -- meaning anyone else could release them.

"That's not my problem," she says. "When people make guns, can you blame them when somebody else kills [somebody] with them? I only write them; I don't release them."

School days

The morning after kickboxing class, I arrive at Gigabyte's house at 6:30. She's having tea with her grandmother in the kitchen of a tiny, immaculate cottage. She has lived with her grandparents most of her life, for reasons she declines to discuss. We catch the public bus downtown to her school. Although the bus is packed with other teenagers, she speaks to no one.

We walk a few blocks to her school, a religious school which "no longer makes any effort to teach religion," she says. "But they have good computer classes, which is why I go here."

Tina Hauquier, who teaches Gigabyte's Friday morning computer class, says, "She is a good young programmer. But I do not approve of her virus writing. I know she says she is not causing any harm, and it is true that she does not intentionally spread these viruses, but I do not think it is appropriate, and viruses can cause a lot of damage."

Nevertheless, teacher and student are cordial to each other throughout the long morning class.

Dispelling the feminist myth

Later that afternoon, Gigabyte walks around the computer room her grandparents have set aside for her (no small sacrifice in such a tiny home), flicking on no fewer than four Windows machines. (There's a fifth in the corner of the living room.) She's comfortable here, and full of opinions.

On being some sort of feminist icon: "That's bullsh**," she says. "I'm a virus writer. If I wanted to make a [feminist] statement, don't you think it would be part of the viruses I've written?

"I mean, yeah, I do want to admit I'm female because there is nothing to hide about it. 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."

'Ugly' Gates and stupid people

On Bill Gates and Microsoft: "I wouldn't want to be him. Too ugly. I think I have more of a thing against Microsoft and Bill Gates' attitudes than I do against their products. If they would just admit there are mistakes and admit there are security problems, that would make [their products] work a whole lot better."

On attacking Microsoft's highly touted .Net platform: "Microsoft said .Net and C# were safer, and yes, there's really no specific flaw in it. But they are just not as sharp as they claim. You can write a virus in C# just like you can in any language."

On the ethics of writing viruses: "I'm not responsible for stupid people who open email attachments that erase their files."

"But what about newbies who don't know any better?" I ask.

"Sh** happens," she responds.

I ask her why her viruses tend to be mischievous or humorous rather than all-out destructive. "I think," she says, "that it's better to be infected with something funny than something destructive."

"But your viruses can also be destructive," I remind her. "What about your Scrambler virus?" (Scrambler attacks all the MP3s on a computer hard drive and scrambles the music into an unintelligible mess.)

She shrugs and says, "Some viruses reformat your hard drive after a few weeks. Scrambler is not that bad."

Likely pet

"Hey, she says, "let's go outside. I want to show you something."

I'm led out into the backyard garden, which, of course, is beautifully groomed -- people in Belgium really take care of their yards. There are painted gnomes, and a small pond, and then, suddenly, there is a ferret: Gigabyte's pet ferret, out for a little afternoon walk. How right they are for each other, I think, looking at the ferret and the virus writer. Both are cunning and quick, and you wouldn't want either of them to bite you.

"Virus writing is so aggressive, and most reasonable people consider it an act of vandalism, or at least potential vandalism," I say. "Would you spray paint graffiti on somebody's wall?"

"We are not coming inside anyone's walls," she said. "The users are running the virus. They are the ones clicking on it."

"So you think the people who execute these programs are responsible for the damage that your viruses do?" I ask.

"Actually," she says, "I think stupid people should have to have some sort of license to get on the Internet."

There's a pause in the conversation. The ferret is turning somersaults in the grass at our feet.

What's next?

"Do you think of what you do as art?" I ask.

"I want to do something original, that not everyone does," she says. "If you write something that's new or funny or special in a way, then I think it is a form of art, yes."

I ask her if she wants to work with computers for a living. When she grows up, I mean.

"Yes. But not with an antivirus company," she says. "I will never do antivirus."

That would run counter to her code.

Posted April 24, 2002

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   Talkback Post your comment here >   
·  "...stupid people should have t... - G. Toad
·  I would give my eyeteeth to be ... - Anita McIntosh
·  she has a point, if the stupid ... - Chris Simon
·  I feel sorry for this little gi... - Christopher Jerome
·  I think what shes doing is grea... - Tommy Orndorf III
·  this girl is pathetic and immat... - adam jordan
·  Place a bomb in the center of a... - Aaron Meck
·  This is so funny! If she reall... - Bryan Cooper
·  The kickboxing girl worm design... - Doug Cullens
·  I just wonder that if a female ... - James Welch
·  ROFL!!! hey giga yea baby! way ... - Robert Rath
·  I think it is very important th... - Harry Kenyon Thrower
·  The only thing I want to know i... - Phil Buchanon
·  Such amorality, lack of ethics ... - Edwin Astacio
·  First of all, this girl denies ... - Seana Maureen Crist
·  I can't realy see the point in ... - Paul Roux
·  Well if this isn't "se7en 2.0" ... - aj reznor
·  it's always interesting to see ... - Carol Lina
·  I am sorry. Yeah, people shoul... - Charles Lloyd
·  It all falls under the category... - Brian Frank
·  While I may not aggree with eve... - Eric Elliott
·  'Gigabyte' provides an excellen... - Aryeh Goretsky
·  You know what I love? Those cut... - Jason J
·  Her being female is moteStupid... - Brandi Benard
·  So young, and already wasted. A... - Michael Silva
·  Must have a license, then you'l... - Mike Noster
·  Interesting excuses these hacke... - Andrew Hardy
·  Quick, hire a teenager while th... - Skip Clarq
·  It's humorous to note that most... - Celia Bryans
·  OK, We get it!! Someone needs t... - Ethan Crane
·  I see a few people on here disa... - Aaron Cummings
·  I know a few script kiddies tha... - Scot Geer
·  I got something to say, send th... - Justin
·  This is going to be long, but I... - Roy Houston
·  I don't understand why She agre... - James Jenkins
·  Gigabyte's youth shows, what is... - Leo Juarez
·  She has a point regarding, "stu... - Hank Henry
·  In the times we live in it does... - Curt Gipson
·  It is a real loss with a person... - Nigel
·  Her gun analogy does not wash w... - Dick Venema
·  Yet another sad case of the med... - Dr. Vesselin Bontchev
·  Just think what she could accom... - David Wesley
·  Only idiots open mail attachmen... - Deunan Knute
·  I think what we need here is a ... - Anthony Castorani
·  In regards to criminal offenses... - Jeff samuel
·  Rude comments by others show th... - Joshua Tooley
·  Did she really say "stupid peop... - Abdul Muhammad
·  Like Aaron Meck said. It is li... - Shawn Gritton
·  i wonder how she'd feel if a pr... - gabe siciliano
·  Hello everyone, Alltough I'm... - Bert vanmanshoven
·  I personally don't see anything... - Garrett Pollert
·  People need to stop being so bi... - S Park
·  I like this, as simply as that.... - Derek Venema
·  Fabrique Nationale makes machin... - John McFarland
·  It's rare to find a coupling of... - Matt Baugh
·  I forgot to mention a couple of... - Matt Baugh
·  "sh* ( thats she ) has a good... - tim rush
·  Yep...she ACTUALLY said "stupid... - Theresa Sherman
·  I applaud anyone that can write... - Duane Wills
·  well i could only wish to have ... - tommy self
·  I envy you for your talent in p... - Mike DC
·  Gigabyte may be female and 18 y... - St.Claire Sease
·  I don't know.. Sounds like giga... - alan smith
·  Yes, sh** does happen. I agre... - Haider S.
·  This in my opinion is a wake up... - T.C. Elliott
·  Isn't 'aiding and abetting' als... - Becky Norris
·  Here is what famous anti-virus ... - David Gordon
·  My guess is that the world has ... - clint mcdonald
·  If there were no "stupid people... - Scott Wheeler
·  Gigabyte's little "Scrambler," ... - Dante Iodic

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