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  • March 28: E-Mail Virus Threatens to Flood Global Networks
  • March 30: New Virus Snarls E-Mail Systems
  • March 31: 'Melissa' Reveals Growing Vulnerability

  •   Programmer Called Sire of 'Melissa' Virus

    Michael Grunwald
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, April 3, 1999; Page A1

    TRENTON, N.J., April 2—A 30-year-old New Jersey computer programmer was charged today with writing and launching Melissa, the fast-spreading computer virus that wormed its way into hundreds of thousands of computers over the last week disguised as seemingly innocuous e-mail messages.

    David L. Smith, who state officials said may have named the sneaky virus after a topless dancer he met in Florida, would face five to 10 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charge leveled against him: interrupting public communication.

    Smith allegedly used a pirated America Online account to send Melissa over the Internet, where it replicated and infected computers around the world, temporarily incapacitating e-mail systems at organizations ranging from Lucent Technologies Inc. to the Department of Defense.

    The officials believe that Smith, like so many hackers before him, had a simple motive for unleashing his mischief into cyberspace: He wanted to see if he could do it.

    Still, officials said the case should spotlight the increasing threat posed by viruses in the increasingly computer-dependent digital age, and the value of cooperation between private firms and law enforcement agencies in ferreting them out. Melissa is mostly an annoying chain letter, cluttering up electronic mailboxes and occasionally inserting a Bart Simpson quotation into electronic documents, but future viruses could be far less benign.

    "I'm convinced there are other Mr. Smiths out there, with the know-how and the desire to commit these kinds of crimes," said New Jersey Attorney General Peter Verniero, who announced the arrest at a news conference here today with Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) and police officials. "We're sending them a message: No matter how smart you may be in this high-tech world, law enforcement will be one step ahead."

    Smith, a programmer for an AT&T subcontractor who lives near a high-tech corridor that includes firms such as Lucent and Bell Labs, launched Melissa onto the Internet from his Aberdeen apartment on March 27. An AOL lawyer passed on the tip that put state police on Smith's trail on Monday. By Thursday night, New Jersey's four-year-old computer crimes task force, with help from FBI technology experts, had traced the server and even the specific telephone that had spawned Melissa, and had gathered enough evidence to arrest Smith without incident at his brother's house in Eatontown. His parents posted his $100,000 bail this morning.

    No one answered the phone at Smith's apartment today. Officials said he has yet to hire a lawyer.

    There had been speculation over the last week that Melissa was created by VicodinES, the Internet alias of a hacker who had dabbled in similar viruses in the past, and whose "digital fingerprint" had been spotted by a Massachusetts computer expert who traced the virus back to an Internet service provider in Orlando. But state officials said yesterday that Smith is not VicodinES, although they cryptically suggested that he may have been helped by the hacker's know-how. The charges against Smith included a conspiracy count, and while officials said they are convinced that Smith was the driving force behind Melissa, they also emphasized that their investigation is continuing.

    Peter Tippett, chief executive of computer security company ICSA in Reston, said his staff of virus analysts believes it has identified more than a dozen computer "aliases" linked to Smith along with several thousand messages posted in news groups and Internet bulletin boards under those pseudonyms.

    Smith appears to have posted messages on Internet bulletin boards under such names as Doug Winterspoon, Doug Smith and Zanax.Smith, Tippett said. Many of the postings deal with antidepressant or anti-anxiety drugs, he said.

    "This guy just lives on the Internet," Tippett said. "He is everywhere. He writes on art sites, music sites."

    Melissa has caused headaches as far away as Japan and China, but according to Jeff Carpenter of the Pentagon-funded Computer Emergency Response Team at Carnegie Mellon University, it was not the result of unusually brilliant computing. "What was interesting about this particular virus was not that it used groundbreaking technology," he said. What made Melissa different from other viruses -- what made it breed so quickly -- was its use of e-mail, which has become one of America's favorite means of communication.

    To make matters worse, Melissa has inspired copycat viruses with names like Papa, which is hidden in a Microsoft Excel attachment instead of Microsoft Word, and MelissaA, which has nothing written in the subject field where users are on the lookout for the "important message from. . . . " Officials are now worried that a copycat may use Smith's inspiration to create an e-mail virus that is more than just a nuisance, one that could disable networks or destroy computer files.

    "We rely so much on the Internet and high technology these days," said FBI special agent in charge William Megary. "We need to recognize the risks that are out there."

    Staff writers Leslie Walker and Liz Leyden contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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