Most Americans felt a need to do something anything, really in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Hackers are no different. In the days after the World Trade Center fell, thousands of programmers, systems administrators and other high-tech types volunteered their services to help rebuild networks destroyed in the incidents.
But just as some ignorant souls have lashed out at innocent Muslims, a group of anonymous keyboard cowboys have responded to the attacks by mounting a senseless campaign against the Internet itself.
These so-called hackers have defaced sites posted by Islamic groups and mounted denial-of-service attacks against machines in the Middle East. Someone even took down a network servicing customers in the Philippines, apparently because the service provider operates under a vaguely Arabic name.
This sort of mischief is more than just annoying. Indeed, these clueless vigilantes might be getting in the way of catching actual terrorists.
"They're not only disturbing the Internet itself, they're disturbing our intelligence gathering," said Parry Aftab, executive director of an Internet safety organization called Cyber Angels. "If you're trying to hone in on the discussions of some particular terrorist and someone slows down the network or shuts it down, there goes months worth of 'spidering.' That's a problem." (Spidering, or crawling, uses programs to locate new documents and new sites by following hypertext links from server to server and indexing information based on search criteria.)
Cyber Angels volunteers are among a handful of private sector programmers who have been asked by government investigators to use automated Web-crawling "spiders" and other tools to track evidence of terrorist activity online. She won't discuss their progress, but she's worried that their work will be undermined by reckless freelance hackers who crash networks or release viruses, worms and other damaging programs.
"People are angry. And when they're angry, they just lash out at anybody," Aftab said. "There's been a huge increase in malicious code activity out there. That disrupts the network, and that just makes it harder for us to protect the national security interest."
Cyber Angels, a group with 10,000 volunteers in 76 countries, is responding to the problem with a novel approach. Instead of merely criticizing these misguided hackers, the group is trying to recruit them. Aftab asked Internet forefather Vint Cerf to record a series of public service announcements inviting these lone coders to join Cyber Angels and start restoring the reputation of hackers everywhere.
"Historically, a 'hacker' was a very honorable engineer, someone who wanted very much to understand and make use of the network in a constructive way," Cerf says in one spot. "People who abuse the network give the lie to that term, and I hope you won't do that."
New recruits won't be joining the search for terrorists themselves, Aftab said. Instead, they'll be asked to help sniff out the "script kiddies," "crackers" and others whose destructive behavior is damaging the Internet at a time when communication is more important than ever. "We want them to realize that stopping what they're doing is patriotic," she said.
Cyber Angels isn't the only group spreading this message. A group of German hackers who call themselves the Chaos Computer Club made a similar pitch at a conference held days after the attacks.
Aftab said she hopes the ad campaign helps mitigate any negative impressions of the Internet that might have been created by the vigilante hacking.
To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at email@example.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611.
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