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Maker of Kournikova virus stands trial

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LEEUWARDEN, NETHERLANDS - Saying that people should be able to use computers and the Internet without interference, a Dutch public prosecutor on Thursday asked the court in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, to sentence the 20-year-old maker of the Anna Kournikova e-mail worm to 240 hours of civil service.

In addition, public prosecutor Roelof de Graaf asked the court to not return the defendant's computer and a CD-ROM containing computer viruses.

The defendant, Jan de Wit, turned himself in to the police in his hometown Sneek, Netherlands, on Feb. 14. A few days earlier, he had posted the e-mail worm to an Internet newsgroup and it then spread worldwide.

de Wit was charged with the spreading of data via a computer network with the intent to cause damage, a crime punishable by four years in prison and a maximum fine of 100,000 Dutch guilders.

The fact that no damage claims have been filed with the prosecutor's office is one of the reasons the prosecutor isn't asking for heavier sentencing. However, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation said in a fax to the prosecutor it identified 55 victims of the Kournikova worm with a total damage of $166,827. That claim wasn't specific enough, the prosecutor said.

In his defense, de Wit's lawyer said "there is no convincing evidence" that his client caused any damage or disruption of service and asked for his client to be found not guilty of any crime and his confiscated belongings returned.

de Wit, who seemed nervous during the court session, again admitted to creating the worm using a worm-making toolkit, but said he didn't foresee the consequences when he posted the virus using the nickname OnTheFly.

"I didn't know what it (the worm) would do. I just clicked away... I did this without thinking and without overseeing the consequences and without the intent to cause damage to anyone," he said. "I am not a programmer; this was the first time I created something myself."

The accused also admitted a fascination with computer viruses. He had been collecting them and had catalogued thousands of viruses and Trojan horses.

"I was fascinated. Such a small program that can create that much damage," de Wit said.

For two days, the virus, under the e-mail guise of an image of Russian tennis star Anna Kournikova, spread like wildfire and infected hundreds of thousands of computers worldwide. Some businesses shut down their e-mail systems as a preventive measure, according to antivirus software vendors.

The Kournikova worm didn't do much damage on a victim's PC. It was programmed to replicate itself via the Outlook address book and set the computer up to visit the Web site of Dutch computer store chain Dynabyte, de Wit's employer. But there is economical damage, antivirus experts said.

"Businesses took down their e-mail service, and the worm caused a massive amount of traffic. On top of that is the PR problem; a company gets infected and sends out e-mails to all their contacts. Filing a claim would only greaten the embarrassment," said Mikko Hypponen, manager of antivirus research at F-Secure in Finland.

Kournikova still is among the top 10 of virus outbreaks, Hypponen said, adding that he doesn't think de Wit should be punished heavily.

"I am not saying that this guy should be sentenced, but it seems a bit unfair compared to people that wrote more destructive viruses that have never been tried because they were not found or because legislation doesn't exist," he said.

It is the first time in history that the maker of a computer virus has been tried in the Netherlands - indeed one of the few times it has been done in the world. Hypponen knows only of one conviction. A man was sentenced to 18 months in jail in the U.K. in the early 1990s. The man served 11 months, said Hypponen.

The verdict is expected in two weeks, on Friday, Sept. 27.

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