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Lost in Cyberspace

Commerce moved online without enough thought

This article was originally published on February 22, 2000 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

The latest string of online mischief – the "denial of service" attacks – illustrate more clearly than anything else the lack of foresight American businesses showed before moving their commerce to the Internet.

A little historical perspective – sorely lacking in most discussions on computer technology – shows that online disruptions have always existed, since the earliest days of personal computers and modems.

Denial of service attacks go back to the era of the dial-up computer bulletin board service, or BBS. Many a one-time BBS system operator has tales of miffed visitors setting their computer to repeatedly dial into the BBS system to tie up the phone lines so other (often paying) visitors could not get in. And there were malignant computer viruses back in the age of the BBS, too.

Of course, back in the '80s, the local police – much less the FBI or Congress – were far too busy with other matters to worry about some poor nerd complaining that the phone lines to his personal computer were being "attacked." It was considered to be no more than part of the cost of doing business (or having a hobby); the way trucking companies have to absorb the cost of road debris chewing up tires or restaurants eat the cost of wasted food.

All that's changed in the years since is the amount of money and the size of the online operations involved.

Which bring up the questions of why supposed authorities act surprised that these issues continue, as well as why corporate America didn't spend more time investigating online security (or the lack thereof) before committing so much of its resources to the 'Net.

The evidence was plain for any who would see: The 'Net's open geography make it practically indefensible. And denial of service attacks – no different really than repeatedly speed-dialing into a BBS – are impossible to prevent. (And do we really want to start throwing kids in jail for a fairly easy prank?)

No savvy executive would open operations in another country without adequately studying the security and police systems of that nation. Why, then, did so many move online without first exploring its limitations? To move onto the 'Net without educating yourself and then bitch that the government needs to do more to protect your business seems not only naive, but even hypocritical.

In response to the hue and cry from an uninformed public, the president and attorney general are promising swift, brutal crackdowns on the "hackers" who are perpetuating these disruptions to online life. The reality of the Internet, it's inherently open nature, makes it unlikely that there will be any great improvement to the situation in the near future. The characteristics that make the Internet work as well as it does – decentralized decision-making, lack of a central controlling authority, flexibility – are also what make it vulnerable to those with a mischievous or even destructive bent.

Rather than trying to change the nature of the Internet, we'd be better off finding ways of changing the ways we use it.