What last week's Internet vandalism caper means to us

Last week an act of vandalism occurred on the Internet. Popular web sites like Ebay, Yahoo and others temporarily were shut down as the result of an attack by hackers. They were overwhelmed by requests for service they could not handle and broke down under the strain. It was as if a supermarket advertised free food and became overwhelmed with the number of people who tried to get into its store and had to shut its doors.

Radio and television pundits are having a field day. Some are calling it the crime of the century, which shows the weakness of the Internet. Others say that it is destroying people's confidence in cyberspace. The FBI is putting its resources behind trying to find the culprits. There almost is a sense of panic in the air. Could the Internet be destroyed?

We should examine this event a little more closely. The Internet is a very large network of computers all over the world. It is complex in nature and by no means perfect. Young people with imagination, energy and great technological prowess developed much of its technology. They put together a system that worked and then set upon the task of refining it to meet new demands. The result is today's wonderful system, even with its flaws.

Enter the "hacker." Like the original developers, most hackers are young, have great energy and possess great technological prowess. They take pride in testing the integrity of existing computer systems. They attack the system to see if it is vulnerable.

Some of these attacks are malicious and a few are destructive. Most however can be thought of as technological pranks that cause no real harm. Some hacks are in the form of viruses. Others break into machines and leave messages on the screen. Even the hacker who got into Pacific Bell's Internet system only caused an inconvenience to those of us who had to change our Internet passwords. Some occasionally however get out of hand and take down whole systems. Seldom do any of these affect our home computers.

Maybe the most famous of these hackers started as a sixteen year old who hacked his way into his high school's grade system just to see if it could be done. My guess is that in the future he will be employed by a Federal Government spy agency.

The point is that computer systems and hackers have a symbiotic relationship. They are in an arms race. Each time a hacker successfully attacks a system, a programmer devises a way to thwart future attacks. Contrary to the pundits, the system matures and becomes stronger.

In reality, this current attack did little real damage. Possibly the stock market day traders will disagree, but in general it was a non-event. In fact, the headline of an article in the business section of a local newspaper said that Internet security firms actually would benefit from this attack. They will sell more software that will thwart future attacks. And so the war continues.

Is there anything that should be done about these attacks? The President is calling a meeting of industry and security specialists to discuss this. The FBI is investigating. But in the long run these events probably will just play out. The hackers will hack; the security firms will "unhack," and the system will continue to get stronger.

Malicious hacks, on the other hand, should be treated as crimes. If real damage occurs, the persons responsible should be brought to justice. There already are laws that make this possible.

In the mean time, we should take a realistic look at each event to see if it just another piece of this symbiotic relationship which will result in a stronger and better Internet for us all.

 _____________________________________________________________________________ Dr. Art Holub is a long time resident of Tustin and teaches computer and Internet courses at the Tustin Area Senior Center and the Tustin Adult School. Visit his web site at: This column is written to address the computer adventures and concerns of older adults. If you have comments, questions or suggestions for future columns, Email HIM at:

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