Balkans war reaches our corner of the Web

Sometime over the weekend, I became engaged in the conflict in Kosovo.

No, I wasn't thrown into the middle of a flow of desperate refugees to report on the growing humanitarian crisis. And I didn't have to dye my hair black to look like a Serb, as our Monitor correspondent Justin Brown did in order to avoid arrest or deportation by Serbian police.

My involvement came when I opened my e-mail and found that I was under attack.

An individual (or individuals) who claimed they were members of a student group in Yugoslavia sent me an e-mail that accused the Western media of being tools of the Nazi regime in Washington, and that President Slobodan Milosevic was Mother Theresa's best friend, etc.

To be honest, I often get mail like this during periods of international conflict. It's a testament to how others around the world regard the influence of The Christian Science Monitor. And since my e-mail address is the one found most often on the Monitor's Web site, I get the mail.

But this time, the attack was more devious. The folks in Belgrade who created the message designed the e-mail so that if you replied, your reply was sent to the 200 other media and political figures who were copied in the original message. For the past three days, my e-mail has been flooded not by Serbian student propaganda, but by impatient media members and politicians annoyed that they've been receiving the same mail I've been getting - mail that we've been sending each other because of the way the original e-mail was devised.

The responses from irate journalists have been quite illustrating. One of the most common is to notify the perpetrators that they are violating Federal Communications Commission rules - a somewhat ineffective tactic, since Serbian students probably don't know what the FCC is, or care. One public television station asked people to stop e-mailing because the e-mail address in question was supposed to be used only for business. Another broadcast journalist warned that if the spam didn't stop, then she would take matters into her own hands - she worked in television and would "take them down."

Yet another person tried to send the students a computer virus - the Happy99 virus - and instead just sent it to everyone else on the mailing list. The only voice of reason came from Canada, where someone from the Globe and Mail pointed out what was happening and that the best thing we could all do was not to reply. Unfortunately, people seem to be ignoring him.

Cyberspace makes us available - and vulnerable - to all sorts of new tactics. NATO's own computer system and Web site were brought down by Serb hacker attacks recently. This, in turn, ignited the passions of American hackers, who proceeded to bring down several Web sites in Yugoslavia. Thus was the virtual battle truly enjoined.

When President Clinton asked for $2.8 billion from this year's budget to go toward fighting "exotic forms of terrorism," he was thinking about chemical weapons and cyberspace. The money would allow the government to hire "computer experts who could respond quickly to electronic terrorist attacks," according to Mr. Clinton.

No doubt the students back in Belgrade are smirking at the media's wild arm-waving about their e-mail attack. But the truth is that my fellow media colleagues had better get used to receiving these spam assaults because this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The first time this happened to us at the Electronic Edition of the Monitor was when we received more than 2,000 identical messages from hundreds of Turks demanding that Italy turn Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan over to the Turkish authorities.

Western media are a tempting target.

*Tom Regan is the associate editor of The Christian

Science Monitor's Electronic Edition. You can e-mail him at tom@csmonitor.com

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