Fiercely protective of their reputation, longtime hackers are locked in a love-hate relationship with web site designers, who grudgingly appreciate hackers' talent for pinpointing serious security lapses. "Hacking is generally accepted to be the arena of very smart people," says Stuart McClure, president of Rampart Security Group in Irvine. "Denial of service attacks, like what happened to Yahoo and eBay, are seen as bottom-of-the-barrel assaults; they don't require a lot of brains."
When a site has been hacked, its appearance is often altered by chest-beating hackers who leave the cyber equivalent of a "Kilroy was here" scrawl. This week's attacks, on the other hand, bombarded various high-traffic sites with an overflow of information, effectively shutting down normal operations. How do the perpetrators send so much data so quickly? Apparently, the most recent assaults are not typical denial of service pranks, which generally are sent from only one or two computers at a time. "These people scan the Internet for vulnerable systems, and they hack into those systems, and then use hundreds of those computers, remotely, to send the attack," says McClure.
The latest string of invasions may inspire some instances of increased security, says McClure, but consumers shouldn't expect a sudden influx of super-secure sites. "There are ways to keep these attacks from happening, but few companies implement them. Security tends to take a backseat to aesthetics and ease of service at the site," McClure says. And while Net businesses may be tempted to pump their time and money into the more visible aspects of a site, the current threat to their bottom line may force them to rethink their priorities. After all, seeing a multibillion-dollar web site brought to its knees by a group of not-so-bright pranksters doesn't inspire a whole lot of confidence on Wall Street or among consumers and advertisers.