The Internet is perhaps the freest electronic forum ever devised. But that very openness can give license to destructive impulses - as this week's digital attacks on Yahoo!, Amazon, eBay, and other heavily used Web sites attest.
These assaults by unknown "crackers" - a more accurate term than "hackers," who can be involved in constructive work - raise worrisome questions:
*How did the crackers do it? Their method, called "distributed denial of service," requires relatively little technological know-how. Instructions can be downloaded from a number of "cracker" sites on the Web. In essence, the perpetrators hijack vulnerable computers, including home computers, and plant instructions in them. At the moment of attack, those instructions are activated, sending a torrent of data at a target Web site. The site clogs and shuts down.
*Why do they do it? Like most vandals, probably for the momentary thrill, and possibly to gain standing with "cracker" peers. Web sites like Yahoo!, known for reliability and security, become attractive targets. Cyber-anarchism could also be a reaction to the Web's growing commercialism, which will bring more rules and regulation. Ironically, criminal acts like "denials of service" will only hasten that civilizing trend.
*How can these attacks be stopped? FBI investigators have called for a community effort by everyone with a stake in the Web. Tougher penalties for Internet vandals could be part of it. Major Web sites will need to build in ways of filtering out malicious traffic. And, very important, individual home-computer users should consider investing in security. If they access the Net through cable modems or DSL lines - which allow constant online service, as distinct from dial-up service - their systems are especially vulnerable to being hijacked. Relatively inexpensive "fire wall" software can alert computer owners to attempted intrusions and prevent them.
The potential for attacks like those of the past week has long been recognized. The attacks should speed the building of defenses, as well as sharpen awareness that the Web can serve up the worst, as well as the best, of human ingenuity.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society