An online culture of larceny

Whatever happened to Onel de Guzman? Could he possibly be Paul Biteng’s role model?

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De Guzman is the hacker who spawned the “Love Bug” in 2000, a computer virus that caused an estimated $10 billion in damage as it disabled computers globally, including in institutions like the Pentagon and the British Parliament. It prompted the Philippine government to pass an antihacking bill which was introduced by then Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr. and which would subject violators to imprisonment. But the law was apparently toothless and 24-year-old De Guzman went scot-free, aided by a wily lawyer named Rolando Quimbo.

Will today’s hacker, Biteng, also get off without punishment even after having caused a massive data leak in the Commission on Elections’ website, because his crime (or misdemeanor) wasn’t aimed at global institutions? Today, as in 2000, the online culture remains the same in a country which the New York Times then described as having a “…kind of subculture of proletarian larceny … where the gap between rich and poor is enormous, [so] poor Filipinos commonly tap into everything from power lines to cable television.”

The newspaper added: “The Business Software Alliance, a US trade group fighting software piracy, estimated that about 77 percent of the software used in the Philippines is pirated.”

In that May 2000 report on De Guzman, the New York Times wrote that his “‘Love Bug’ that brought some of the world’s most sophisticated computer networks to a halt this month was hatched in a noisy inner-city neighborhood where residents live under corrugated steel roofs and raise fighting cocks in their front yards.”

The report quoted him as saying that he may have inadvertently unleashed the virus while harvesting subscribers’ passwords, and declaring that he believed Internet access should be free since having to pay for its use was “immoral.”

Describing the Philippines as having an “enormous” gap between rich and poor, the newspaper cited the hacking incident as having exposed “an embarrassing advertisement of the Philippines’ programming talent and infant dotcom scene… .”  It described how Manila investigators homed in on De Guzman’s shared accommodation and found 13 encrypted disks and six cell phones.

The Associated Press photograph accompanying the report showed De Guzman’s neighbors and a scrawny dog amid a litter of rubber flip-flop slippers and cooking pots outside his front door while police questioned him inside. Another photo was of De Guzman in shades beside a page from his term paper where he stated: “The researcher decided to develop this program because he believes it will be helpful to a lot of people especially Internet users to get Windows passwords such as accounts to spend more time on Internet without paying.”  Over it his instructor wrote in ink: “This is illegal!”

De Guzman continued in his term paper: “The importance of the study is to help other people most especially Windows users… . When we connect to the Internet we are spending time and lots of money to pay for only using a couple of hours.  So this program is the main solution, use it to steal and retrieve Internet accounts of the victim’s computer.”  The instructor underlined “to steal” and wrote: “We do not produce ‘burglars’!”

Manila detective Efren Meneses told the New York Times that the case was too convoluted and that he’d rather take on “armed terrorists in a dark alley” than hackers on the Internet.  And one of De Guzman’s classmates at their computer college commented on his friend’s act: “It’s a cool thing, and I respect it.”

Fast-forward to Biteng telling the Inquirer in an interview that he meant “to give voice to the voiceless” even though, he said, he had not meant to penetrate the Comelec website. Describing last March 18 as a “boring” day at his parents’ house in Sampaloc, Manila, the 23-year-old information technology graduate had been playing his usual online games when he decided to hack the Comelec database. Two days later he shared the codes with fellow hackers; a week later the voters’ data were leaked.

The implications of that breach also worried banks and the monetary authority, since more than voters’ data could also be released.

Of his arrest, Biteng made the illogical statement: “I’m not an ordinary criminal. I’m just a cybercriminal.”  After agents of the National Bureau of Investigation took him in custody on April 20, criminal charges were filed against him at the Manila City Prosecutor’s Office.  He remains detained and is surely contemplating his handiwork—whether with regret or pride, one cannot tell. His friends may consider him a kind of hero —as friends of De Guzman did 16 years ago.

Whether the government will try to patch up its creaky communications reputation and make antihacking legislation stick this time are imponderables. Antihacking legislation seems not to have featured in the election campaign, but all will depend on the new administration after May 9.

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This opinion piece originally appeared in the Philippine Inquirer on April 27, 2016.

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