Features

Cybercrime doesn't pay

National | The Justice Department sets up a special hacking and copyright unit, the Pentagon battles a worm, and a would-be rocketeer plans his own personal space flight

Issue: "Rolling the dice," Aug. 4, 2001

Cybercops
How far should the government go to protect intellectual property? Attorney General John Ashcroft walked into the middle of the debate last month when he announced nine special units to prosecute hacking and copyright violations. The 48 new prosecutors will work in cities where the problem is most acute: Los Angeles, San Diego, Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Seattle, New York, Brooklyn, N.Y., and Alexandria, Va. Mr. Ashcroft said businesses spent $300 billion fighting hackers and computer viruses last year, but he also cautioned that federal action should help secure the Internet while not hindering its development. "There is perhaps nothing quite as distressing as the unintended consequences of well-intentioned government," he said. Still, some techies called it overkill. Thomas Greene, a writer for The Register, an influential technology news site, argues that companies could stop the problem themselves with "adequate access controls and proper network hygiene." Mr. Ashcroft is already taking heat from techies over the case of Dmitry Sklyarov, a 26-year-old Russian in Las Vegas who was arrested after attending the Def Con convention. He designed a scheme to break the encryption on Adobe Systems' e-books. Critics claim Mr. Sklyarov acted as the agent of a software company, not as a criminal deserving prosecution. Even Adobe, the injured party, called for the programmer's release. A statement withdrawing support for the prosecution said it "is not conducive to the best interests of any of the parties involved or the industry." Destructive worm
The Pentagon shut down public access to its websites for part of the day on July 23 to fight off an online threat called the Code Red worm. The program, which resembles a virus, spread more rapidly than any such threat in recent history. Its ultimate goal was to attack White House computers. Code Red exploits weaknesses in Microsoft software and defaces websites. It spread to at least 225,000 computers, mostly at businesses, posting up messages saying "Hacked by Chinese." The targets are machines running the server software with the Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 or Windows 2000 operating system and set to the English language. The FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center called Code Red a significant threat that could "degrade services running on the Internet." While Microsoft released a patch for the software problem on its website, many users had not yet upgraded and became vulnerable. The Pentagon apparently decided that an ounce of public embarrassment was worth a pound of intrusion. "Most [Department of Defense] websites will not be accessible by the public until this worm no longer poses any threat to DOD networks," spokeswoman Lt. Col. Catherine Abbott said. The origin of the virus is as yet unknown. The name "Code Red" referred to a Mountain Dew flavor consumed by programmers at eEye Digital Security who spotted the worm. Code Red was set to infiltrate as many computers as possible, then attack an IP address (the Internet equivalent of a phone number) used by the Bush administration. The White House dodged the attack by changing the address. Space cadet
Brian Walker plans to strap himself to a 24-foot rocket packing 9,000 pounds of fuel, light it up, and shoot himself into space. He's serious. Mr. Walker is an inventor who made his fortune in the toy business-and his boldest project is what he calls Earthstar One. This rocket will shoot Mr. Walker 35 miles above the Earth's surface, then drop its fuel tank and activate a thruster that will send him back to the ground. "I don't care if people think I'm nuts," Mr. Walker said. "If I hadn't lived this life, I'd think I was nuts, too." He says he's dreamed about space flight since he saw the Apollo flights on TV when he was a kid. Mr. Walker has spent at least $250,000 preparing to blast himself into space. He hired a 24-year-old community college student named David Engeman to help work in his "Rocket Ranch." He attended a cosmonaut-training course last year in Russia, the same one attended by millionaire space tourist Dennis Tito. He even paid $11,000 to take a 30-minute ride in a Russian MiG. Call it genius or a Peter Pan fantasy, but Mr. Walker plans to don a Russian space suit and shoot into the air from the Alvord Desert next summer. He will guide the rocket with only a throttle, but will have two parachutes and an ejection seat at the ready. The whole story is detailed on Mr. Walker's website, Rocketguy.com.

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