The Denver Post
The Internet is falling, oh my
by Howard Fienberg
February 14, 2000

I can't get onto the auction web site E-Bay.com. Day three, and I still can't place a bid on that bumblebee Beanie Baby. E-Bay.com, Yahoo.com, CNN.com and numerous other high-profile web sites disappeared from the Internet for several hours early this week when computer 'hacker' attacks separated consumers from major Internet businesses. The world's first 'chatchky' (or bric-a-brac, or knick-knack) crisis: for hours on end, useless stuff could not be bought over the Internet.

Time to log off, stack up the sandbags, and prepare for the end.

But wait. We're already a month and some into the year 2000. Does anyone remember that the world was supposed to have ended already? Perhaps this is just the most recent incarnation of Y2K-bug hysteria.

Most of us did not know anything about the millennium bug until about a year ago. Suddenly, we were all scared the world as we knew it would come crumbling down. But then we all relaxed, had some champagne, celebrated New Year's Eve, and the Earth kept turning. Why? Because the media told us to.

Not to say that the media deliberately and maliciously tell us what to think, but in framing issues they do impact our perceptions. When the media were running endless news stories about the horrors of the millennium bug, we worried, and when they ran stories informing us things would be hunky-dorey, we stopped worrying.

So why the media schizophrenia? Because they don't really understand the Internet or computers. The Internet is neat, but the average journalist cannot be expected to exactly understand how a network operates or to what extent the public need fear hackers.

This most recent crisis is a perfect example. Hackers are people who dance with computer programming, joust with security software, and mostly break into places which they are not supposed to be. This recent round of attacks, dubbed 'denial-of-service,' was simply the bombardment of network systems with a ton of junk mail -- very low-tech operations designed to cause traffic jams on the information super-highway. The capacity to do so is available in easy-to-implement code all over the Internet. Hackers are a proud bunch, often shouting their achievements from the mountaintops -- this is not what happened. And because this did not involve cracking security, labeling the perpetrators as 'hackers' is at least premature.

All computers, networks and crimes are not equal. This is different from hackers cracking into private accounts and stealing credit card numbers.

This also differs from the defacing of federal government web sites, which was annoying, but never jeopardized any secure information.

But our paranoia has galvanized the Federal Bureau of Investigation to hunt down the perpetrators. This investigation smacks of using a combine harvester to hunt for the needle in a haystack.

Perhaps we should take a breath and step back for a moment. The media are once again taking an issue that is hardly even an inconvenience for Joe Public and blowing it so far out of proportion (several days on the front page of the USA Today) my grandmother is worried that hackers might disrupt her microwave. Aside from some delays and poor access to a few web sites, the average Internet surfer has no particular reason to panic.

Journalists and pundits with a reasonable grasp of the crisis have used it to point out the need to strengthen our infrastructure, the Internet's electronic 'backbone.' Some have cleverly highlighted that while the stock prices of affected companies dipped, another set of stocks showed some sweet gains: network security firms, who always benefit from computer scares.

Still, the media are most concerned with 'business' and how this will affect 'e-commerce.' Meanwhile, no one has addressed what these attacks really represent-the elevation of 'spam' to a new level. Spam is the term for junk email. I receive dozens of spam mailings every day, begging me to 'Visit This Site!' or 'Buy My Product,' which slow my computer and network to a crawl. Since the government appears intent on sticking its nose into the Internet, perhaps it could get its priorities straight and turn a bit more attention to spam --- an annoyance affecting all of us, rather than just a few important businessmen.

Howard Fienberg is research analyst with the Statistical Assessment Service, a nonprofit nonpartisan organization dedicated to public understanding of scientific and social research.


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