FBI Investigates Cyber Attacks

LOS ANGELES -- FBI Officials have launched the largest-ever computer crimes investigation to catch the perpetrators of a series of cyber attacks that have temporarily crippled some of the world's most popular web sites.

The attacks disrupted service for millions of Internet users by temporarily overloading web sites starting with Yahoo.com on Monday, sweeping through others including auction site eBay on Tuesday and, on Wednesday, pummeling leading financial sites such as ETrade.com and Datek, plus the ZDNet news site.

The aggressive U.S. government response, involving Attorney General Janet Reno, reflects not only the Internet's central role to the nation's economy, but a sense among officials that it is also an increasingly important public communications tool.

Authorities said they have not identified any suspects, and some FBI officials speculated the crimes could be the work of overseas terrorists "trying to misuse the Internet to the detriment of the United States."

"This is a wake-up call," Department of Commerce Secretary William Daley said. "It's obvious from the news of the last few days that [law enforcement] efforts have to be expanded on."

But underscoring the ease with which such crimes can be committed in the Internet age, computer-security experts said this massive Internet sabotage could just as easily been pulled off by a teenager typing away at an ordinary PC.

In fact, the federal probe is likely to focus on the murky world of computer hackers, an underground populated mainly by loose bands of adolescent males seeking virtual thrills and peer recognition.

No group has claimed credit for these recent attacks, but their magnitude has already earned the anonymous perpetrators a permanent place in the computer-crime pantheon.

"This is much bigger than the hacking of ... the White House web site," said Weld Pond, the pseudynom of a hacker who was one of the original members of a hacking group in Boston called Lopht.

Nevertheless, he and other hackers expressed a certain amount of disdain for the latest attacks, saying they are impressive for their audacity and magnitude, but required little technological sophistication in an age when hacking tools are as easy to find on the Internet as food recipes.

"The technology is such that it could almost be one person, even a 14-year-old kid" said Weld, who requested anonymity and now works as a researcher for Atstake.com, a computer-security firm. "But it's probably a small group of people. Typically, a lot of these things are just done for bragging rights."

At a press conference Wednesday, Reno pledged a massive mobilization of resources, including cooperative efforts with the U.S. intelligence community and military investigators.

"At this time, we are not aware of the motives behind these attacks," Reno said, "but they appear to be intended to interfere with and to disrupt legitimate electronic commerce."

Reno said the National Infrastructure Protection Center, a section of the FBI, is working closely with agency field offices and specially trained prosecutors around the country. She declined to say whether the agency has any significant leads, but other federal officials privately said the attacks appeared to have been "bounced" through computer networks in New York, Chicago and Dallas.

The sheer enormity of the attack means hundreds and perhaps thousands of computers were involved, Poulsen said.

The strategy takes advantage of hacking programs readily available at numerous web sites. Such attacks are nearly impossible to prevent and difficult to trace because they come from disparate locations and carry fake return addresses.

On Wednesday, Reno appealed to Congress to approve President Bill Clinton's request for $37 million to help the FBI fight cybercrime, a request that was part of the administration's budget announced earlier this week.