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Monday, December 17, 2001

‘Goner’ suspects under house arrest in Israel after confession
Steven Scheer & Bernhard Warner

FOUR Israeli teenagers were placed under house arrest after admitting they wrote and spread the "Goner" worm that wreaked havoc on computers worldwide, the police said.

Tel Aviv's juvenile court accepted a police request to confine the 15- and 16-year-olds to their houses pending five days of investigation, said Meir Zohar, head of the Israeli police computer crimes squad.

Under Israeli law, they would face up to 2-1/2 years in prison for a virus that deleted files and clogged e-mail inboxes around the world, causing millions of dollars in damage.

"Goner", the latest of a series of costly computer viruses to have an international impact, appeared as an e-mail with the subject line "Hi" and a screensaver attachment. Officials said North America, Australia and Western Europe were hardest hit.


The youths, from the same school in the northern city of Nahariya, had never been arrested before, Zohar said. One admitted to writing the worm, and the other three confessed to spreading it, with the author's encouragement, he said.

The teens' lawyers were unavailable for immediate comment.

"They are not bandits, they are regular kids. They are not computer geniuses, although one of them could write a programme," Zohar told Reuters. "I don't think they fully understood what they were doing."

Security experts called for stern punishment, insisting the damage went beyond a children's prank.

"One thing law enforcement could do is...be more proactive, to tell teenagers, 'This isn't a cool thing. You will be caught and you will be punished because it does millions of dollars worth of damage to corporations,'" said Graham Cluley, senior technical consultant for Britain's Sophos Anti-Virus.

The software community is concerned that the courts will go easy on the young suspects, as happened with the Love Bug, Melissa and Anna Kournikova virus suspects. Jail, Creating and spreading computer viruses is a crime punishable with a maximum jail sentence of five years under Israeli law. But for juveniles -- the majority of those who send viruses -- maximum jail time is only 2-1/2 years.

The police acted on a tip from Israeli intelligence before the arrests late last week. The police searched their homes and confiscated computers and other material, Zohar said.

"After five days they will be released unless we find something," he said. Their admissions might not be enough.

Early predictions put Goner in a league with last year's infamous "Love Bug", which experts say caused $8.75 billion of damage worldwide. But by late last week Goner was expected to inflict about $5 million in damages.

Zohar said the suspects told investigators the worm was supposed to be an update of the fast-spreading 1999 "Melissa" e-mail virus, which caused about $1.2 billion in damage.

Information technology officials want harsher punishment.

Security experts say that most countries do not have virus-authoring legislation on the books that would be vital for cracking down on the culprits.

"That's the first step of course," said Mikko Hypponen, manager of anti-virus research at Finland-based F-Secure. "Once we start to use these laws, then, I feel genuinely, there is a need for harsh punishment."

"That said, nobody wants to put a kid away for years who didn't harm anyone physically," he noted.