Alleged author of ‘tennis’ virus says he meant no harm

The person believed to be responsible for the “Tennis” virus that on Monday spread through thousands of computers said he meant no harm and that he created it to teach computer users a lesson about safe online practices.

Using the alias “OnTheFly,” a Dutch Excite@Home Inc. subscriber admitted to creating the virus using a Visual Basic Worm Generator written by a programmer in Argentina. “I didn’t do it for fun,” he wrote in a letter posted on his Tripod homepage on Tuesday.

He said he decided to create the virus after reading an article last week based on research from International Data Corp. that found that Web surfers are still opening unknown e-mail attachments despite being hit with the “Love Letter” virus in May. That virus is believed to have caused billions of dollars in damage.

“I think IDC is right,” OnTheFly stated on his site. “I never wanted to harm the people who opened the attachment. But after all: It’s their own fault they got infected.”

The strain of e-mail virus created by OnTheFly clogged inboxes with messages purporting to include a photo of 19-year-old Russian tennis star Anna Kournikova. Once opened, the attachment sent itself to all addresses found in the user’s Microsoft (MSFT) Outlook address book. Antivirus vendors quickly released fixes for it.

OnTheFly said he chose Kournikova because “I am a big fan of her. She deserves some attention, doesn’t she?”

The Tennis virus also was designed to automatically open the Web page of a Dutch computer shop on Jan. 26, 2002. OnTheFly said he chose that shop because he recently purchased something from the store and had the receipt laying on his desk in front of him when he created the worm, a type of virus that replicates itself from computer to computer.

Richard M. Smith, chief technical officer (CTO) of consumer advocacy group the Privacy Foundation, tracked OnTheFly through newsgroups and then to OnTheFly’s Excite@Home account. “He was not careful about [hiding] his Internet Protocol address,” said Smith, who helped hunt down the creator of 1999’s Melissa virus. “He seems like a kid. I’d be surprised if he’s over 16.”

An Excite@Home spokeswoman in the U.S. said the company was looking into the matter. “We will be taking the appropriate action against the subscriber,” said Alison Bowman. “The investigation could take some time.”

It is unclear what action could be taken against OnTheFly if he does indeed turn out to be the creator of the worm. Charges against a Filipino computer-school dropout accused of creating the Love Letter virus ultimately were dropped because the country had no laws covering computer-related crimes at the time. Since then, such laws have been proposed and that suspect has been charged with credit-card fraud.