15 February 2000

Denial of Service attacks on well-known web sites

by Kate Melville

The recent spate of attacks on major web sites (eBay, Amazon, Yahoo and CNN) has seen blame already apportioned to: professional industrial saboteurs, lone high school students, international hacker rings based in USA/Europe/Asia/Middle East and almost any number of permutations thereof.

So while the FBI and other agencies pursue these cyber miscreants perhaps the companies affected should be looking for new software to help prevent these Denial of Service (DS) attacks.

Traditionally it has been very difficult to prevent DS attacks because they use very low-tech hacking, simply flooding a site with more "packets" of digital information than the site can handle, effectively locking out legitimate users. However, there is now software to trace their source. Developed by computer scientist Dr. Felix Wu of North Carolina State University, the prototype software is already being used by the university with a final version due in March.

Wu has been developing the software for two years and the US Defense Advanced Research Program Agency (DARPA) has funded his project.

According to Wu, "We've known about the possibility of Denial of Service attacks for a long time, at least 20 years. It looks like a growing trend''. The attacks occur when hackers break into insecure computer networks and then manipulate these computers to repeatedly contact a site, thereby flooding it with data packets.

This 'cyjacking' of a network to effectively become a virtual weapons delivery system, means those insecure networks and the organizations that control them have become unwitting participants in this new type of electronic warfare.

"Large networks like university systems and Internet service providers are the most vulnerable. They are very open computer networks," Wu says.

What does this all mean?

� Larger losses for companies who don't make a profit anyway

� Free software for networks that will then presumably have to buy upgrades

� Probable litigation against networks that were used to deliver the DS attack

� Continued attacks that exploit fundamental weaknesses in distributed communications that have been traditionally seen as the Internet's greatest asset.