Teen Hacker Arrest Masks True Net Peril

This past weekend, a Canadian teen who calls himself “Mafiaboy” was arrested in the Montreal area and charged with at least one of the February denial-of-service (DoS) hacker attacks that blocked access to such popular Web sites as Yahoo!, Amazon and eBay.

In addition to inconveniencing millions of customers by disrupting Internet transactions worldwide, the DoS attacks cost Web sites millions of dollars (US$) in revenue. The entire e-commerce industry was shaken by how easily the 15 year-old apparently shut the sites down.

The plan was alarmingly simple. A hacker — allegedly the Canadian teen — simply took over computers around the world remotely and then used them to bombard targeted sites with so much data that access for legitimate users was blocked.

Working with the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI, investigators were able to track down Mafiaboy by examining the log files of a University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) research lab computer that was among those used in an attack on CNN.com.

Chat Room Visitors Helped Pick Targets

A hacker electronically broke into the UCSB computer February 8th and instructed it to send an overwhelming flow of data traffic to CNN.com’s Web site, campus network programmer Kevin Schmidt told ABC.

ABC News added that the FBI obtained chat room logs allegedly showing that Mafiaboy asked for advice on what other sites he should take down. Internet security expert Michael Lyle told the network he had communicated with Mafiaboy, and the teen claimed credit for attacking not only CNN.com but also E*Trade and several smaller sites.

Cult Hero?

In spite of what appears to be damning evidence, let me say that Mafiaboy should be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. However, regardless of the trial’s outcome, there are disturbing factors surrounding the alleged crime.

For one, it is likely that all the publicity showered on Mafiaboy will give him some sort of cult status, encouraging other young hackers to follow in his cyber-steps.

Another complicating factor in this unfolding drama is Mafiaboy’s tender age. If he is convicted, the authorities may find it difficult to come down hard on the teenager without looking like bullies, which will undoubtedly encourage his youthful admirers to view him as a martyr.

Technology is Co-Conspirator

If Mafiaboy had been born 30 years ago, he may have had to settle for throwing a cherry bomb down a toilet to vent his adolescent frustration. Now, with the advent of technology, teen pranks have the potential to disrupt worldwide e-commerce transactions and attract absurd amounts of attention.

Unfortunately, the media has a tendency to fixate on the “sexier” aspects of such scandals and ignore the real issue. In this case, taking Mafiaboy out of circulation is being hailed as a law enforcement coup — while the underlying fact that the Internet remains vulnerable hardly seems to matter.

In my opinion, Web sites have a long way to go before they will ever be impervious to any type of hacker assault. However, if we continue to make stars out of misguided kids and other social misfits who are bent on cyber-mayhem, the problem will surely only get worse.

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