Terror on the Internet

A pair of electronic mail bombings underscores the fragility of the world's largest computer network

  • Share
  • Read Later

Thanksgiving weekend was quiet in the Long Island, New York, home of Michelle Slatalla and Josh Quittner. Too quiet. The phone didn't ring all weekend -- which is unusual for a pair of working journalists. Nor did they hear the familiar beep of electronic mail arriving from the Internet, although Quittner tried several times to log on. It wasn't until their tenant complained about a strange message on their answering machine that the couple investigated and discovered all was not well in their electronic cocoon.

"We'd been hacked," says Quittner, who writes about computers -- and hackers -- for the newspaper Newsday, and will start writing for TIME in January. Not only had someone jammed his Internet mailbox with thousands of unwanted pieces of E-mail, finally shutting down his Internet access altogether, but the couple's telephone had been reprogrammed to forward incoming calls to an out-of-state number, where friends and relatives heard a recorded greeting laced with obscenities. "What's really strange," says Quittner, "is that nobody who phoned -- including my editor and my mother -- thought anything of it. They just left their messages and hung up."

It gets stranger. In order to send Quittner that mail bomb -- the electronic equivalent of dumping a truckload of garbage on a neighbor's front lawn -- someone, operating by remote control, had broken into computers at IBM, Sprint and a small Internet service provider called the Pipeline, seized command of the machines at the supervisory -- or "root" -- level, and installed a program that fired off E-mail messages every few seconds. Adding intrigue to insult, the message turned out to be a manifesto that railed against "capitalist pig" corporations and accused those companies of turning the Internet into an "overflowing cesspool of greed." It was signed by something called the Internet Liberation Front, and it ended like this: "Just a friendly warning corporate America; we have already stolen your proprietary source code. We have already pillaged your million dollar research data. And if you would like to avoid financial ruin, get the ((expletive deleted)) out of Dodge. Happy Thanksgiving Day turkeys."

It read like an Internet nightmare come true, a poison arrow designed to strike fear in the heart of all the corporate information managers who had hooked their companies up to the information superhighway only to discover that they may have opened the gate to trespassers. Is the I.L.F. for real? Is there really a terrorist group intent on bringing the world's largest computer network to its knees?

The Net is certainly vulnerable to attack. Last April a pair of publicity- hungry lawyers deluged more than 5,000 Usenet newsgroups with an unsolicited promotional mailing, triggering a flood of angry E-mail massive enough to knock them off the Net. A few years earlier a single "worm" program, designed by a Cornell student to explore the network, multiplied out of control and brought hundreds of computer systems to a halt.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3