Features

Virtually battlefields

National | Software helps find hard targets, the FBI polices the cyberfront, and a lonely Net IPO seeks investors

Issue: "A patient nation," Oct. 13, 2001

Artificial espionage
A valuable new addition to military intelligence doesn't wear a uniform. In the new war, the U.S. military is turning to artificial intelligence to help identify targets before they can elude commanders. The military is testing software programs called intelligent agents to sort though mountains of incoming communications intercepts, spy photos, and other critical data. The technology resembles that used by Internet search engines and major software packages (like the paperclip in Microsoft Word). Computers look for certain patterns through an avalanche of material. In this case, these so-called robots are looking for enemies instead of keywords. In military lingo, the software is called CoABS, or Control of Agent-Based Systems. The purpose of the technology is to speed command decisions, so that a target can't hide before someone gives the order to fire. In 1998, for example, authorities believe Osama bin Laden left an Afghan encampment just a few hours before a cruise missile barrage demolished it. Many believe that the horde of data is so large and so rapidly updated that humans can no longer keep up with them unaided. "It takes us too long to get the intelligence to a weapons system," said James Hendler, ex-chief information systems scientist of U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. "These agents route the right information to the right people at the right time." The software can move an important picture from a spy plane to a Navy commander without having to route it through Washington. U.S. intelligence agencies already use robots to mine data from the Internet and databases of intercepted communications. A new front for terrorists?
Call it the cyberfront. Futurists and technology pundits have long predicted that international conflicts often will be fought in "cyberspace" as well as the real world, and hackers may make the battle with terrorism the first example. Even though disruptions to date have been few, security experts say problems could escalate with the conflict. Right now, the FBI is concerned that a surge of computer attacks and viruses could seriously degrade the Internet. The bureau's National Infrastructure Protection Center issued a warning that it "expects to see an upswing in incidents as a result of the tragic events." One problem is so-called hactivism, or the use of computer crime to make political points, in this case by vigilantes against those considered to be supporting terrorists. Some pro-U.S. hackers have already vandalized Middle Eastern websites. Another issue is what Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer at Counterpane Internet Security in Cupertino, calls "semantic attacks." This is when online news and information sites are targeted for vandalism or manipulation. Late last month, a 20-year-old San Francisco hacker tampered with Yahoo's news site, saying he wanted to show problems with the site's network setup. A far worse danger is hard-core cyberterrorism, in which skilled criminals disrupt systems for hospitals, utilities, banks, and other key institutions. CIA adviser Lawrence Gershwin told Congress in June that terrorists are traditionally unlikely to pursue computer attack, but that could change. "We anticipate more substantial cyber threats are possible in the future as a more technically competent generation enters the ranks." Bytes may someday catch up with bullets. Internet IPOasis?
In the midst of economic doldrums comes a hot IPO: PayPal, the online payment service, hopes to raise up to $80.5 million on Wall Street. Just last year, this would have been just one more new dot-com issue. Now it looks like an oasis in a desert of decline. As the stock market-particularly the tech-heavy Nasdaq-has fallen to earth after the late '90s go-go years, investors have avoided such stocks. Only three Silicon Valley companies-Align Technology, RiverstoneNetworks, and Loudcloud-have gone public so far this year. The latter, chaired by Web browser pioneer Marc Andreessen, is the most famous of the three but its stock is tanking; after opening at $6 per share in March, it fell to $1.12 at the end of September. PayPal has lost $231 million in its 2H year history, but the company apparently hopes investors will be wooed by its rapid growth. The service lets users move money easily around the Internet and was boosted by the success of online auctions. PayPal takes credit card payments and bank debits from users and can deliver payments to a designated party. This makes e-commerce easier for individuals and small businesses. PayPal's announcement was overshadowed by a major tech crash: ExciteAtHome, the top cable modem service provider, filed for bankruptcy protection. AT&T will absorb its network. The service's 3.7 million subscribers will be undisturbed, according to the company.

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