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Criminal Computing

February 17, 2000

It has been widely noted that last week's attacks by hackers against the Internet sites Yahoo, Amazon, eBay, e*Trade, CNN, and others, did not damage, erase, or compromise the security of any data. But at a time when many computer users have overcome their qualms about disclosing personal information and performing financial transactions online, the fact that hackers were able, even temporarily, to cripple these major sites raises serious concerns about Internet security. Two recent articles in The Atlantic Monthly have highlighted distinct dangers posed by the Internet's growth and the difficulty (if not impossibility) of protecting its users.

Because the Web is a diffuse, global network mostly made up of anonymous users, online crime is often more complex, more sophisticated, and harder to fight than that of the non-networked world. In "moldovascam.com" (September 1997), Marshall Jon Fisher described an extraordinarily complicated scheme that had been uncovered the previous year by the Federal Trade Commission. The scheme -- which involved pornography Web sites, cleverly programmed downloadable software, and international telephone fraud -- demonstrated the difficulty of tracking down criminals who use a medium that "lends itself to camouflage," as Fisher explained. "There's no 'place' on the Internet," said one security expert whom Fisher interviewed. "Nowhere to go looking for the culprit."

More on technology & digital culture in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound. The creation and dissemination of computer viruses is another form that Internet crime often takes. In "The Virus Wars" (April 1999), Robert Buderi discussed work being done by a group of IBM scientists to combat the spread of viruses. Hackers, Buderi pointed out, have been creating viruses (ranging from the merely annoying to the devastatingly destructive) since the early 1980s. But only since the advent of the Internet ("with millions of people swapping files and conducting ... business around the clock") have viruses been able to do widespread damage in very short periods of time. Scientists at IBM's Anti-Virus Center have been developing a new mechanism that they hope will be more effective in keeping up with the Internet-era onslaught of viruses than the tools now at their disposal. They call this project, which is modeled after a human being's immune system, the Digital Immune System.
The idea is to create digital white blood cells -- much as human beings develop antibodies to biological agents -- that will be permanently available online. In theory, automatic virus-scouting programs will transmit suspect codes directly to the immune center, where they will be analyzed and debugged and the cure beamed back before mere mortals even know there's a problem. "If the Internet is going to survive," White [a scientist at the Anti-Virus Center] says, "we're going to need an automated response on this rapid time scale."
Promising as this technology sounds, new viruses that operate in unprecedented ways are constantly being unleashed into the computing community. "In short," Buderi writes, "just as there is no end to the human battle against biological bugs, the campaign against their digital counterparts endures."

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