Child's play

National | Wintertime Web prank prompts tightening-up among e-tailers; too much of a good thing brings one start-up site to its knees; and even non-tech companies are promoting computer literacy

Issue: "Georgia twisters," Feb. 26, 2000

"We warned you"
Shields up! Major websites are tightening security after hacker-induced disruptions hit major destinations like Yahoo, eBay, and ETrade. The companies won't say much about their precautions, for fear of setting up targets for attack, but some say technicians are being trained to detect unusual activity and more software is coming to detect suspicious behavior. Even the Defense Department is checking its systems to see that they were not used as unwitting accomplices. Why? Hackers can hide programs on a third party's computers, then set them off to bombard the victim with a flood of junk data. The target site gets so busy processing junk data that normal traffic grinds to a halt. That's why it's called a "distributed denial of service." Investigators say dozens of institutions with powerful Net connections, including Stanford University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, were tapped and used in the attacks. Since the real attacker could be anywhere, finding the culprit could be difficult. And with the increasing complexity and availability of hacker tools, such shutdowns could be more frequent. "This is not something that it takes a great deal of sophistication to do," FBI official Ronald Dick said. Naturally, sales of security software have skyrocketed. An Alexandria, Va., consulting business named iDefense took out full-page newspaper ads declaring, "We Warned You," about the attacks. For users, the problem was annoying, not catastrophic. Buy.com chief executive Greg Hawkins, whose attack hit on the same day as his IPO, said not much damage was done in only a three-hour attack. But, he added, "if these things were to happen with regularity, we would be having a different conversation." Money for nothing
FreeScholarships.com had a great idea that may have been a little too great. The plan is simple: Offer thousands of dollars in scholarship money to people who sign up on the site. Then get a bunch of sponsors and advertisers to pay for placement in sight of the horde of education seekers surfing by to enter the contest. This way, FreeScholarships.com could make money by giving away $10,000 a day, $25,000 a month, and $50,000 a quarter through prize drawings. The site launched on Feb. 3 and was hugely successful. Too successful, in fact. Hundreds of thousands of people headed to the site for their shot at the money, thus overloading the site. FreeScholarships.com allows students, parents, and even grads trying to pay off student loans to register, but only about 10,000 people had registered before the site was temporarily taken down. The first $10,000 prize went to an unnamed Michigan father of two children who plans to send one to college next fall. The meteoric rise of FreeScholarships.com shows the power of giving things away on the Internet. A plethora of similar giveaways are to follow. After its initial splash, FreeScholarships.com vowed to return with a much sturdier site. "We've got a team of pocket-protected computer types installing new servers as we speak," the site told its users after it was taken down. "And if that doesn't do it, we'll just have to go and get faster hamsters." Hi-tech employee benefits
Want a cheap computer? Ask your boss. Ford and Delta Air Lines are both starting plans to offer workers low-cost PCs with Internet connections. The goal: to make them comfortable with new technology. In a move reminiscent of founder Henry Ford's famous 1914 wage hike to $5 for an eight-hour day, Ford will let all of its 350,000 workers have a home computer, color printer, and Internet access for just $5 a month. "We're committed to serving consumers better by understanding how they think and act," explained Ford CEO Jac Nasser. "Having a computer and Internet access in the home will accelerate the development of these skills." Ford expects most employees to sign up, even to use the Hewlett-Packard built machine as a second computer. This puts pressure on GM and DaimlerChrysler to match the offer, which, obviously, pleased the United Auto Workers. Delta Air Lines is offering a similar deal to its 72,000 employees for a $12 monthly fee. The programs are just starting, and what happens to the PCs once employees change jobs isn't clear. Why do such a deal? Neither Ford nor Delta is considered a typical "high-tech" company, but they both need to catch up with innovation. Subsidizing computers is cheaper than hiring staff PC gurus to answer basic questions. And training isn't cheap either. By letting people have their own computers at home, the company doesn't have to have people taking baby steps while the clock is running.

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