Lessons in Cybercivics

To whoever it was out there in cyberspace who launched last week's "smurf" attacks that temporarily crippled Yahoo, Amazon.com, E-Trade, eBay and CNN.com by overloading their web servers with fake requests for data, let me just say on behalf of all of us: Thank you.

Yes, thank you for doing us all a favor, which is highlighting the vulnerabilities of an increasingly wired world, but doing it in a calibrated fashion - not so powerful that you did any lasting damage, but powerful and brazen enough to get everyone galvanized to address the threat. You, dear cybervandals, have imparted three critically important lessons to the American public that no presidential speechifying could match.

Lesson No. 1: When the walls between nations start to get blown away, and the world gets increasingly wired into networks, everyone becomes potentially super-empowered, including individuals and vandals. What makes an Amazon.com so potentially powerful and possibly lucrative? It's the fact that in a wired world a single bookstore can now reach into 180 different countries, and be reached into from 180 different countries. Amazon is a super-empowered library.

Unfortunately, this same wired world also super-empowers angry people. Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire allegedly responsible for blowing up two United States embassies in East Africa, is a super-empowered angry man. He had his own network, a sort of Jihad Online (JOL), which he used to take on the U.S. and kill Americans. And do you know what we did to him? We fired 75 cruise missiles at him. We fired 75 cruise missiles at a person! That was a superpower versus a super-empowered angry man.

We saw the web version of that last week. Some super-empowered cybervandal, probably working on a PC out of a basement somewhere, was able to cripple the world's biggest commercial web sites. The balance of power changes in a wired world. The whales get bigger, but the minnows get stronger.

The threat today is not that Osama bin Laden, or Joe Super-Cybervandal, can ever become superpowers. The threat today is how many people can become Osama bin Laden and Joe Super-Cybervandal.

Lesson No. 2: One of the first reactions people had to the attacks on the popular web sites was: Did they take any of my personal data or credit card numbers?

This highlights another vulnerability in the wired world - the danger from Little Brother.

What happens in a wired world, where an increasing number of people surf, learn, shop, gamble andsatisfy their sexual fantasies online, is that you leave a trail of electronic fingerprints everywhere you go now.

As one headline on CNET asked last week: "Is Your Computer a Smoking Gun?" It may be, because today everyone from your favorite hotel chain to your favorite web site to your local video store is amassing information about you and storing it electronically more easily than ever before - sometimes innocently, sometimes to sell it to marketers. The Internet advertising firm DoubleClick Inc. recently announced plans to track Internet users as they moved through the World Wide Web and to link the electronic trail they leave behind with people's actual names and addresses - supposedly only with their permission.

In short, there is no Big Brother collecting all these data, but there are a lot of Little Brothers - web sites, hotel chains, advertisers - collecting it, with little supervision. So beware of Little Brother, not Big Brother.

Lesson No. 3: The only one who can possibly protect you from the super-empowered angry people, or the Little Brothers, is Uncle Sam. Yeah, guess what? Despite all this wiring and virtual interaction, government still matters. In fact, it matters more now in the cyberage, not less. The notion that in the cyberage the state will, or should, disappear or become some virtual entity - "Look, ma, no atoms!" - is nonsense.

Who's tracking down the latest cybervandals? The Federal Bureau of Investigation. Who's the only one who can protect you from cyberattacks on your private data? The government - and we need to make sure it has the resources and the laws to ensure that if anyone wants your data he has to negotiate with you first.

So Joe Super-Cybervandal, wherever you are, thank you. Thank you. You have given us all the best 21st-century civics lesson you possibly could - and with just one click.

Thomas L. Freidman is a columnist for The New York Times, where this comment originally appeared.