Hackers start century with a bang

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Hackers start Internet Century with a bang

By David Greising Tribune Business Columnist February 11, 2000

Two years ago in February, the U.S. was again on the verge of bombing Iraq. Saddam Hussein defiantly refused to allow UN weapons inspectors to do their work, and was making provocative gestures toward Kuwait.

At that crisis point, unknown hackers penetrated Defense Department computer systems and installed sophisticated spying software. Immediately, national security forces mobilized "Operation Solar Sunrise" to catch the cyber-terrorists. The top hunch: Hussein had sent super-hackers to compromise our national defenses.

Wrong guess.

Turns out it was a couple of California teenagers. Hackers. They were no more a threat to national security than a grade-school book sale imperils Amazon.com.

This week's hacker attacks on Internet sites like Amazon, eBay, Yahoo! and E*Trade reminded Richard Clarke of that security scare in 1998. Clarke, President Clinton's national coordinator for security infrastructure protection and counter-terrorism, is relieved that so far, at least, the Web attackers have done little damage.

But it could have been much worse. Scarier still: It could happen again.

"There is a threat out there," Clarke told a Chicago luncheon that law firm Sidley & Austin hosted Thursday for its clients. "It can challenge our national security. It can challenge our economy. But we are doing something about it."

What defenses are we building?

President Clinton has asked for $2 billion in next year's budget to protect government computer systems. Several major business groups are constructing computer-defense centers. The financial-services industry has opened one center, and the telecommunications industry's center opens next month.

Private industry, which spent an estimated $90 billion stomping out the Y2K bug, is learning that those outlays were not a one-time investment. They were more like a hefty down payment on a mortgage that we'll never completely pay off.

Still, most Americans are now at a point where we realize the investment will be worth making. That's because the attacks come at precisely the time when most of us can begin to appreciate the danger they represent.

Not long ago, few people truly understand how vital the Internet will be to our future. Today, most everyone understands, and we're so committed to the Web, we know there is no turning back.

America Online's Steve Case in January declared this "The Internet Century." A month later, the attacks shut down significant chunks of the Internet.

We shouldn't overlook the timing.

It's going to be tough to build the "Internet Century" if anonymous, technically unsophisticated hackers can do so much damage with such apparent ease.

It's like someone popped the lug nuts off the first wheel. Or a prankster stole the type from Gutenberg's printing press.

The Web attack is a warning that could do some good. It will force companies to do more to guard against cyber-vandalism. If they act now, they can protect the ongoing Webification of the economy.

No one will seriously argue that business should slow its migration to the Web, or that the Internet "can't be trusted." Even if they try, no one will listen, because the move to the Web is as inevitable as time.

The Web attack is a reminder that the Internet can be a dangerous world, just like the rest of society.

It's like we've grown up in a town where people don't lock their doors. A few crimes happen, and the deadbolts turn.

The world hasn't become that much more dangerous. But it has forced us to be more alert to dangers that were always there.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), February 11, 2000



Y2k as "a downpayment on a mortgage we will never pay off".

Well said.

-- Bud Hamilton (budham@hotmail.com), February 13, 2000.

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