Latest Hacker Attack Cripples Online Brokerage

In what has become a persistent problem for popular Internet sites of late, the National Discount Brokers Group reported that its stock-trading Web site was shut down for more than an hour Thursday as a result of an apparent denial-of-service (DoS) hacker assault.

The outage prevented 200,000 National Discount customers from placing stock orders through the firm’s Web site, forcing them instead to relay orders via the telephone.

National Discount officials said its Web site came under attack early in the afternoon when it was flooded with information requests from two Internet addresses. The company resolved the problem by disconnecting the Web addresses, and was able to restore online service shortly afterward.

Earmarks of Hacker Attack

“It had the earmarks of a hacker attack,” National Discount Chairman Dennis Marino said in published accounts. “It appears to be somewhat similar to ‘denial of service’ attacks in that it was a concerted, concentrated generation of traffic.”

Initially, National Discount blamed the outage on technical problems at the two companies that connect it to the Internet, PSINet, Inc. and Exodus Communications Inc.

However, a spokesman for the Herdon, Virginia-based company said the problem did not originate at PSINet, while the Santa Clara, California-based Exodus declined to comment.

The Latest in a String of Attacks

The denial-of-service attack staged against National Discount Thursday is just the latest of a string of attacks that have been carried out this month by unknown hackers against some of the Web’s most popular sites, including Yahoo!, online auctioneer eBay, Inc. and online broker E*Trade.

While causing little actual damage in terms of stolen files or damaged systems, the attacks sparked a broad Wall Street sell-off earlier in the month, according to some analysts. The attacks also attracted the attention of numerous U.S. government officials, including President Bill Clinton.

In an exclusive interview with the E-Commerce Times, FBI special agent Charles Neal, who heads the Los Angeles computer crime squad, said that while it is difficult to catch such criminals, it is certainly possible — especially if an individual or small group is responsible.

No Big Deal?

Meanwhile, some analysts, such as Forrester Research, Inc., are dismissing these attacks as little more than minor irritations.

“Unlike attacks aimed at firms like CD Universe, these attacks aren’t from hackers after a financial windfall or malicious destruction — rather, they’re just after 15 minutes of fame,” Forrester said in a brief earlier this month. “Although these attacks have captured the public’s attention, they will fade like all other attacks before them,” the brief added.

Not a Show-Stopper, But Still Serious

While this type of analysis may be correct in terms of assessing actual damages, some observers feel that it badly misses the point — especially if the attacks are being orchestrated by real terrorists that are trying to disrupt the U.S. economy.

As Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf told the E-Commerce Times, “Reliable service is an important aspect of customer expectation, so dealing with these kinds of disruptions is important. The Internet is so valuable and useful, though, that I think these will be considered annoyances, but not show-stoppers.”

“I don’t mean to minimize the effects on the parties attacked,” Cerf added. “It is serious. I hope that the perpetrators can be found and prosecuted, because this amounts to interference with critical infrastructure. We’d be up in arms if people jammed the telephone network or wrecked the power networks, for instance.”

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