[ISN] Viruses, Security Issues Undermine Internet

InfoSec News isn at c4i.org
Tue Jun 28 03:24:01 EDT 2005


By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 26, 2005

DENVER -- E-mails were flooding in from all over the country.  
Something strange was going on with the Internet, alarmed computer
users wrote. Google, eBay and other big sites had suddenly
disappeared. Kyle Haugsness scanned the reports and entered crisis

Part of the Internet was broken. For the 76th time that week.

Haugsness was on duty for the Internet Storm Center, the closest thing
to a 911 emergency-response system for the global network. He and a
few colleagues began investigating and discovered that a hacker had
taken advantage of yet another security hole. As many as 1,000
companies had effectively had their connections "poisoned," so when
their employees typed in legitimate addresses they were taken to bogus
Web destinations. Haugsness wrote up an alert and a suggested
solution, and posted it on the Web.

Then, Haugsness turned back to his inbox. In the few hours he had
spent sleuthing that March day, several dozen e-mails detailing other
suspected issues had piled up.

Built by academics when everyone online was assumed to be a "good
citizen," the Internet today is buckling under the weight of what is
estimated to be nearly a billion diverse users surfing, racing, and
tripping all over the network.

Hackers, viruses, worms, spam, spyware and phishing sites have
proliferated to the point where it's nearly impossible for most
computer users to go online without falling victim to them. Last year,
the Carnegie Mellon University CERT Coordination Center logged 3,780
new computer security vulnerabilities, compared with 1,090 in 2000 and
171 in 1995. Computer security firm Symantec Corp. over the past
decade has catalogued 11,000 vulnerabilities in 20,000 technologies,
affecting 2,000 vendors.

"I'm very pessimistic about it all," said Haugsness, who has worked
for the storm center for two years. "There are huge problems and
outages all the time, and I see things getting worse."

Originally developed by the Defense Department, the Internet is now a
global electronic communications network made up of hundreds of
millions of computers, servers and other devices run by various
governments, academic institutions, companies and individuals. Because
no one entity owns it, the network depends on goodwill to function

The Internet has become so huge -- and so misused -- that some worry
that its power to improve society has been undermined. Now a movement
is gathering steam to upgrade the network, to create an Internet 2.0.  
How, or even if, that could be done is a subject of much debate. But
experts are increasingly convinced that the Internet's potential will
never be met unless it's reinvented.

"The Internet is stuck in the flower-power days of the '60s during
which people thought the world would be beautiful if you are just
nice," said Karl Auerbach, a former Cisco Systems Inc. computer
scientist who volunteers with several engineering groups trying to
improve the Internet.

Many of the bugs in the Internet are part of its top layers of
software, the jazzy, graphics-heavy, shrink-wrapped programs that come
loaded on new computers or sold in retail stores. But some of the most
critical issues were built into the network's core design, written
decades ago and invisible to the average user.

For example, a way to verify the identity of a sender of e-mail or
other communications is just beginning to become available, meaning
that many criminals roam the network with relative anonymity. And the
system that matches addresses to Web sites is vulnerable to hackers,
redirecting users to sites they never wanted to visit.

Technological solutions for many of those problems have existed for
years, but it's been difficult to build a consensus to implement them.  
Arguments about global politics, potential profits and ownership of
intellectual property have plagued groups trying to fix things.

"The problem with the Internet is that anything you do with it now is
worth a lot of money. It's not just about science anymore. It's about
who gets to reap the rewards to bringing safe technologies to people,"  
said Daniel C. Lynch, 63, who as an engineer at the Stanford Research
Institute and at the University of Southern California in the 1970s
helped develop the Internet's framework.

As the number of users exploded to more than 429 million in 2000 from
45 million in 1995, Lynch remembered watching in horror as hackers
defaced popular Web sites and shady marketers began to bombard
people's e-mail inboxes with so much spam that real messages couldn't
get through.

When the Internet's founding fathers were designing the network in the
1960s and 1970s, they thought a lot about how the network would
survive attacks from the outside -- threats like tornados, hurricanes,
even nuclear war. What they didn't spend much time thinking about was
internal sabotage. Only several hundred people had access to the first
version of the Internet and most knew each other well. "We were all
pals," Lynch said. "So we just built it without security. And the darn
thing got out of the barn."

Years passed before the Internet's founders realized what they had

"All this was an experiment. We were trying to figure out whether this
technology would work. We weren't anticipating this would become the
telecommunications network of the 21st century," said Vinton G. Cerf,
62, who with fellow scientist Robert T. Kahn, 66, helped draft the
blueprints for the network while it was still a Defense Department
research project.

Even as he marveled at the wonders of instant messaging, Napster and
other revolutionary tools that would not have been possible without
the Internet, Leonard Kleinrock, 71, a professor at the University of
California at Los Angeles who is credited with sending the first
message -- "lo," for "log on" -- from one computer to another in 1969,
began to see the Internet's dark side. "Right now the Internet is
running amok and we are in a very difficult period," Kleinrock said.

Some technologists have said the Internet or parts of it are so far
gone that it should be rebuilt from scratch, and over the past decade
there have been several attempts to do so. But most now agree that the
network has become too big and unruly for a complete overhaul.

For now groups are working on what are essentially bandages for the

Today, a complicated bureaucracy of groups known by their
abbreviations help govern the network: the IETF (the Internet
Engineering Task Force, which comes up with the technical standards),
ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which
manages the naming system for Web sites) and the W3C (the World Wide
Web Consortium, which develops technologies for the Web). But their
power is limited and their legal standing murky. Some have recently
argued that the United Nations should take over some regulatory
functions. Firms have set up their own standards groups to suit their
own interests.

The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that security must be the
priority when it comes to the next generation Internet. Major
companies are promoting technology that will give recipients of e-mail
"return addresses," or a better way of ensuring that senders are who
they say they are, though the companies disagree on whose technology
should be used. A group of scientists from the Internet Engineering
Task Force, perhaps the most important standards-making body for the
network, are working on a way to better collect and share information
on computer intrusions.

Internet2, a consortium of mostly academic institutions that has built
a screaming-fast network separate from the public Internet, is testing
a technology that allows users to identify themselves as belonging to
some sort of group. Douglas E. Van Houweling, president of Internet2
and a professor at the University of Michigan, thinks the system could
be used to limit access without using passwords to, say, chat rooms
for women with children on a certain soccer team, or to subscribers of
certain magazines or newspapers.

"You've heard the saying that on the Internet nobody knows you're a
dog, and that's of course the problem," Van Houweling said.  
"Authentication will allow communities to form where people are known
and therefore can be trusted."

But there's a trade-off for such security. The network becomes
balkanized, with more parts of it closed to most people. Auerbach, who
has been involved with ICANN and the IETF, said more security raises
the "specter of central authorities."

Lynch believes the Internet will never truly be secure, though,
because of the diversity of software and devices that run on it. If
one has a flaw, others are vulnerable.

For years computer designers have tried to build a machine that lives
up to the "orange book," a specification written by technologists at
the predecessor to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.  
It describes a bug-free, completely secure computer that has to be
built in a clean room with designers who have gone through extensive
background checks and are not allowed to communicate with anyone.

"There have been a few computer systems built like this for the
military and they vanish, just vanish. Nobody talks about them
anymore," Lynch said. "They have been created, but for the average
person they may as well not exist."

Until that perfect machine is built for consumers, it will be up to
people like Haugsness at the Internet Storm Center to keep the network
up and running. The center is operated by the SANS Institute, a
Bethesda-based nonprofit dedicated to computer security. But most of
its work is done by an eclectic group of volunteers who sign on
remotely from around the world, including a former National Security
Council staff member and a grandmother in Iowa. Haugsness is in his
late twenties and is an avid snowboarder and mountain biker.

One Sunday afternoon this month, Haugsness was at his company's office
checking the storm center reports. One person said he had found a new
variant of a program that allowed hackers to take over a computer by
creating a "back door" through holes in its security system. There
were also complaints about a few phishing e-mails that tried to trick
people into giving up their personal information. Internet traffic
patterns worldwide seemed fine -- only a few sections had congestion
that would qualify as serious, or "red."

Nothing "super bad" so far, Haugsness concluded. All in all, only
about a half-dozen documented problems. That might have been
considered a disaster a decade ago. But it was a pretty good day for
the Internet in 2005.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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