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Internet Hackers and the Recent "Denial of Service" Attacks

Date Posted: 2000-02-27

There's been some confusion about the recent "Denial of Service" attacks on a number of major commercial Web sites.

The first thing to realize is that attacks of this kind are very unlikely to pose any threat to the average user, though they may be quite inconvenient.

Here's a rough outline of how these attacks work:

A hacker breaks into someone else's computer, and places a special program (called a "Zombie") on that computer.

The hacker activates the Zombie program, which begins sending data to the computers of one or more major Web sites. These "packets" of data mimic the signals sent by a legitimate user requesting information from the Web site.

The Zombie program sends out so many data packets so quickly that the Web site servers are overloaded, and are unable to respond to requests from legitimate users.

At no time during this kind of attack does the hacker actually break into the data stored on the Web site's computers. Therefore, there is very little danger that any personal users' information is at risk of being stolen.

The reason the hacker breaks into a third party's computer in step (1) is to use it as a launching pad for their attack. If not for the fear of getting caught, they could just as well launch their attack from their own computer. The Zombie program, by itself, does no damage to its host computer.

The only danger to an individual PC user in this sort of attack is that they may be used in this way (although Zombie programs typically target Unix or Linux systems). This is a danger primarily for PCs that have "always-on" Internet connections, such as DSL or cable modems. The simplest preventive measure in this case is to turn off the computer when not in use. This will vastly reduce the opportunities for a hacker to break into a PC and use it to launch a Zombie attack.

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