“It is possible,” mumbled de Guzman.
And that was it. There were no more questions. The press conference ended, and de Guzman’s solitary non-answer was the closest anyone got to an explanation of a virus that infected 45 million machines worldwide.
De Guzman was never prosecuted because, at that time, the Philippines had no law against computer hacking. Soon, the cameras packed up, the news crews left, and the story slipped off the agenda.
With the true author unconfirmed, suspicion fell on de Guzman’s schoolfriend Michael Buen, whose name had appeared on a previous virus, called Mykl-B. Buen denied having anything to do with the Love Bug outbreak, but his pleas were largely ignored. Most online sources still list de Guzman and Buen as the creators of the virus, either jointly or separately, and that’s how it’s been for 20 years. Until now.
The Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene is one of Manila’s most revered Catholic shrines, and in its shadow lies the labyrinthine expanse of Quiapo market, home to everything from Hello Kitty backpacks to LED-lit Virgin Mary statuettes. It was here, acting on a tip-off, that I came to look for Onel de Guzman.
Eventually, the friendly stall-holder who remembered him directed me across town to a different shopping district. I went down another rabbit hole of market stalls, flashing the piece of paper with de Guzman’s name written on it, looking like a tourist dad who’d lost his kids. After many blank looks and suspicious questions, a bored-looking trader pointed me in the direction of a nearby commercial unit. It was empty, but after 10 hours of waiting for him to turn up to work, I finally came face to face with Onel de Guzman.
Now 43, his juvenile acne scars have all but disappeared, and his diamond-shaped face has filled out into comfortable middle age. Still as shy as he was at the press conference all those years ago, he hides his gaze under a mop of jet-black hair, his face occasionally breaking into a smile displaying a distinctive set of uniform teeth. He’d changed so much, I began to doubt I was actually speaking to the real de Guzman, so I started making a furtive sketch in my notepad of the position of the moles on his face, to compare later on with the photo of him from 20 years ago. Back then, in the chaotic press conference, he’d swerved the question of whether he had written the virus, giving the half-answer that’s remained hanging in the air ever since. According to de Guzman, it wasn’t his idea to be so evasive.
“That’s what my lawyer told me to do,” he says, in halting English.
I’d expected to have to extract the truth from de Guzman by forensic interview, and I’d lined up my evidence like an amateur barrister. Remarkably, he wasted no time in confessing to a wrongdoing he’d ducked ever since the turn of the millennium. “It wasn’t a virus, it was a Trojan,” he says, correcting my terminology to point out that his malicious software worked by sneaking onto a victim’s computer disguised as something benign. “I didn’t expect it would get to the US and Europe. I was surprised.”