Love bites

The most insidious thing about the latest e-mail virus is how it preys on users' hunger for affection.

Topics: Microsoft,

Overnight, “ILOVEYOU” has become the scariest phrase on the Net — as an e-mail virus bearing that subject line has spread its destructive presence, lodging itself in corporate networks, government offices and personal desktops, replicating itself en masse and deleting files from computers around the world.

The “ILOVEYOU” virus, like its predecessor Melissa, targets users of Microsoft Outlook and exploits a security hole in that program. The virus is activated when users open a file attachment — a Visual Basic script masquerading as a text file named “LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.” Once activated, the script can send copies of itself to your entire address book and delete image and audio files from your hard drive.

There’s nothing very new about the specific technical techniques this virus relies upon to work its mischief: The holes in Outlook have been widely known since the Melissa panic. In any other industry, a product like Outlook would long ago have been subject to a massive recall. Anyone using Outlook today should be warned: This software is subject to stupid virus infections — use another e-mail program if that worries you. No software is totally secure, but using Outlook is like hanging a sign on your back that reads “PLEASE MESS WITH MY COMPUTER.”

The most interesting innovation introduced by ILOVEYOU’s creator isn’t technical but social: Whoever it was that devised this virus figured that the fastest way to get people to open an e-mail and read an attachment was to offer a message of anonymous amorousness. Judging by the speed with which this virus is spreading, he figured right.

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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