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Tuesday November 13 1:25 PM ET

Will Computer Underground Play by New Rules?

By Elinor Mills Abreu

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Six days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon (news - web sites), a major European hacker group issued an unorthodox plea to the rest of the computer underground for cyber peace.

``We face this power of destruction and feel helpless,'' a statement on the Web site of the Germany-based Chaos Computer Club said. ``However, we believe in the power of communication, a power that has always prevailed in the end and is a more positive force than hatred.''

The group was responding to calls for revenge by malicious hackers who had defaced Middle Eastern Web sites after the Sept. 11 attacks. The 20-year-old Chaos Computer Club, which joined other seasoned hacker groups in renouncing cyber-battles in 1999, urged restraint.

Nonetheless, computer vandalism in the form of Web site defacements and denial-of-service attacks, designed to temporarily shut down Web servers, have continued against U.S. sites, along with a notable uptick in Afghan and Pakistani targets. Some security experts fear malicious hackers will steal sensitive data or do even worse damage.

Recent incidents include one where ``GForce Pakistan'' claimed credit for hacking into a server at the U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and threatened to leak sensitive information.

In Europe, hacker group Yihat claimed that it had accessed Middle Eastern bank accounts belonging to members of Al Qaeda, the organization suspected as being behind the U.S. attacks.

Overall, statistical evidence is hard to come by that computer vandalism has fallen or risen since Sept. 11. But analysts note that a spike following international crises is normal, such as occurred following the U.S. spy plane collision with a Chinese jet-fighter and the bombing of Kosovo.


Incidents of ``hacktivism'' -- digital protests with a political message -- have been around for decades, serving as the cyber equivalent of campus sit-ins and sidewalk graffiti. They do minimal economic or lasting technical damage to government agencies or companies. They are more nuisance and embarrassment than anything else.

Most hacktivism has specific targets -- such as when critics of global capitalism attempt to shut down or hijack the Web sites of the World Trade Organization (news - web sites) or other international trade groups such as the GATT site at

Most of the recent computer hacks have been done by attention-seeking young hackers, so-called ``script kiddies'' who -- because they lack the experience to develop the tools themselves -- rely on pre-programmed computer scripts developed by more veteran hackers to attack sites, experts said.

Some attacks on Pakistani, Afghan and Arab world targets reflect raw U.S. patriotic emotions, but the majority of them are just using the latest international conflict as an excuse to do mischief, observers said. Patriotism is also apparent as a motivation for hacker attacks on U.S. government sites from the Middle East or South Asia, such as the GForce vandalism.

``Most of the criminals perpetrating these acts have delusions of grandeur and way too much spare time on their hands (not an uncommon thing with unemployed teen-agers living at home),'' Oxblood Ruffin of the U.S.-based hacker group Cult of the Dead Cow told Reuters via e-mail.

``Some do it because they think they can help, some do it because they want the press and attention,'' Jericho, a hacker with the U.S.-based group, wrote in an e-mail.

``In reality, if any hackers are working against the enemy, I doubt we'd hear about it until it was done,'' he said of any support such hackers might be lending to U.S. military efforts in Central Asia.


Several experts suggested there were fewer reports of cyber attacks after Sept. 11 because it's unclear who to retaliate against and because the most likely candidates in Central Asia lack the electronic infrastructure to target.

Other than weapons, Afghanistan (news - web sites) makes do with 19th century technologies as battles are waged on horseback and most homes lack electricity and plumbing.

``The fact that we're not seeing a lot of sites in the Middle East compromised is due more to the low Internet population density in central Asia,'' said Chris Rouland, director of research at Internet Security Systems Inc. (Nasdaq:ISSX - news) in Atlanta.

``There are certainly elements of the (computer) underground that would like to kick some 'cyber ass', but it's hard to do that when you don't have a (defined) target,'' said Winn Schwartau, author and Florida-based information warfare consultant. ``I'm not seeing anything serious. What are they going to do, a denial-of-service attack against Kabul?''

However, this could change if a backlash arises against the United States over the bombing of Afghanistan.

This could occur as sympathy for the Sept. 11 attacks wanes, predicted Michael Vatis, former director of the U.S. National Infrastructure Protection Center who is now director of the Institute for Security Technology Studies at Dartmouth.

The severity of the suicide plane attacks on U.S. cities, the subsequent anthrax mail scare, and the war in Afghanistan has many at the fringes of the computer underworld wondering whether such events have shocked the underground community to take heed of the real-world consequences of their actions.

``I've been thinking about that (ethical debate) ever since Sept. 11, whether there is a moral sensibility,'' said Richard Thieme, a writer, former priest, and father figure to many in the hacker community who also has ties to U.S. intelligence agencies.

``Where (hackers) put their energies can either further or impede the efforts of our real enemies to do damage,'' he said.

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