Wire Pirates Essay Research Paper Wire PiratesSomeday

Wire Pirates Essay, Research Paper

Wire Pirates

Someday the Internet may become an information superhighway, but right now it is

more like a 19th-century railroad that passes through the badlands of the Old

West. As waves of new settlers flock to cyberspace in search for free

information or commercial opportunity, they make easy marks for sharpers who

play a keyboard as deftly as Billy the Kid ever drew a six-gun.

It is difficult even for those who ply it every day to appreciate how much the

Internet depends on collegial trust and mutual forbearance. The 30,000

interconnected computer networks and 2.5 million or more attached computers that

make up the system swap gigabytes of information based on nothing more than a

digital handshake with a stranger.

Electronic impersonators can commit slander or solicit criminal acts in someone

else’s name; they can even masquerade as a trusted colleague to convince someone

to reveal sensitive personal or business information.

“It’s like the Wild West”, says Donn B. Parker of SRI: “No laws, rapid growth

and enterprise – it’s shoot first or be killed.”

To understand how the Internet, on which so many base their hopes for education,

profit and international competitiveness, came to this pass, it can be

instructive to look at the security record of other parts of the international

communications infrastructure.

The first, biggest error that designers seem to repeat is adoption of the

“security through obscurity” strategy. Time and again, attempts to keep a system

safe by keeping its vulnerabilities secret have failed.

Consider, for example, the running war between AT&T and the phone phreaks. When

hostilities began in the 1960s, phreaks could manipulate with relative ease the

long-distance network in order to make unpaid telephone calls by playing certain

tones into the receiver. One phreak, John Draper, was known as “Captain Crunch”

for his discovery that a modified cereal-box whistle could make the 2,600-hertz

tone required to unlock a trunk line.

The next generation of security were the telephone credit cards. When the cards

were first introduced, credit card consisted of a sequence of digits (usually

area code, number and billing office code) followed by a “check digit” that

depended on the other digits. Operators could easily perform the math to

determine whether a particular credit-card number was valid. But also phreaks

could easily figure out how to generate the proper check digit for any given

telephone number.

So in 1982 AT&T finally put in place a more robust method. The corporation

assigned each card four check digits (the “PIN”, or personal identification

number) that could not be easily be computed from the other 10. A nationwide on-

line database made the numbers available to operators so that they could

determine whether a card was valid.

Since then, so called “shoulder surfers” haunt train stations, hotel lobbies,

airline terminals and other likely places for the theft of telephone credit-card

numbers. When they see a victim punching in a credit card number, they transmit

it to confederates for widespread use. Kluepfel, the inventor of this system,

noted ruefully that his own card was compromised one day in 1993 and used to

originate more than 600 international calls in the two minutes before network-

security specialists detected and canceled it.

The U.S. Secret Service estimates that stolen calling cards cost long distance

carriers and their customers on the order of 2.5 billion dollars a year.

During the same years that telephone companies were fighting the phone phreaks,

computer scientists were laying the foundations of the Internet. The very nature

of Internet transmissions is based on a very collegial attitude. Data packets

are forwarded along network links from one computer to another until they reach

their destination. A packet may take dozen hops or more, and any of the

intermediary machines can read its contents. Only a gentleman’s agreement

assures the sender that the recipient and no one else will read the message.

But as Internet grew, however, the character of its population began changing,

and many of the newcomers had little idea of the complex social contract. Since

then, the Internet’s vulnerabilities have only gotten worse. Anyone who can

scrounge up a computer, a modem and $20 a month in connection fees can have a

direct link to the Internet and be subject to break-ins – or launch attacks on


The internal network of high-technology company may look much like the young

Internet – dozens or even hundreds of users, all sharing information freely,

making use of data stored on a few file servers, not even caring which

workstation they use to accessing their files. As long as such an idyllic little

pocket of cyberspace remains isolated, carefree security systems may be

defensible. System administrators can even set up their network file system to

export widely used file directories to “world” – allowing everyone to read them

- because after all, the world ends at their corporate boundaries.

It does not take much imagination to see what can happen when such a trusting

environment opens its digital doors to Internet. Suddenly, “world” really means

the entire globe, and “any computer on the network” means every computer on any

network. Files meant to be accessible to colleagues down the hall or in another

department can now be reached from Finland or Fiji. What was once a private line

is now a highway open to as much traffic as it can bear.

If the Internet, storehouse of wonders, is also a no-computer’s land of

invisible perils, how should newcomers to cyberspace protect themselves?

Security experts agree that the first layer of defense is educating users and

system administrators to avoid the particularly stupid mistakes such as use no

passwords at all.

The next level of defense is the so called fire wall, a computer that protects

internal network from intrusion. To build a fire wall you need two dedicated

computers: one connected to the Internet and the other one connected to the

corporation’s network. The external machine examines all incoming traffic and

forwards only the “safe” packages to its internal counterpart. The internal

gateway, meanwhile, accepts incoming traffic only from the external one, so that

if unauthorized packets do somehow find their way to it, they cannot pass.

But other people foresee an Internet made up mostly of private enclaves behind

fire walls. A speaker of the government notes, “There are those who say that

fire walls are evil, that they are balkanizing the Internet, but brotherly love

falls on its face when millions of dollars are involved”.

In the meantime, the network grows, and people and businesses ent


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