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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 2, 2001

Cyber war escalates over U.S. spy plane

Advertiser Staff and News Services

Chinese and U.S. hackers escalated their cyber war yesterday, in a rising battle of online mischief triggered by the recent collision between a Chinese military jet and a U.S. surveillance plane.

 •  Test your defenses

There are a couple of free Web sites that allow you to test your computer for weaknesses that can be exploited:

 •  Symantec Security Check, which will test the Web connections of Windows PCs and Macs for susceptibility to hack attacks.
 •  Gibson Research's Shields Up!
Scores of Web sites were defaced Monday by Chinese hackers and their U.S. counterparts.

In most cases, the home Web pages of affected U.S. sites were replaced with anti-American propaganda and images of the Chinese pilot downed in the incident with the U.S. plane. American hackers in turn substituted anti-Chinese diatribes and taunts on Chinese sites' home pages.

This cyber battle appears to be the first effort by American hackers to battle counterparts in another nation over a political conflict. In general, Web site defacements by U.S.-based attackers have been an effort to demonstrate their technological skills at disrupting sites.

"Never before have countries been in the situation where their own 'patriotic' citizens have had the ability to launch attacks on their own initiative," said Ben Venzke, a cyber terrorism expert with IntelCenter.com, a site that tracks terrorism incidents and hacking wars.

Among the U.S. government sites temporarily disabled Monday were those maintained by the U.S. Treasury Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Yesterday, the U.S. Transportation Department site was hit as well as several more obscure U.S. government Web sites — including ones at the United States Geological Survey and the Treasury Department. All of them have been fixed quickly.

A range of Chinese government sites also were hit.

Hawai'i technology professionals said they have seen no evidence yet of the brewing cyber war between Chinese and American hackers reaching local Web sites.

"We're aware of it," said Courtney Harrington, state director of information technology. "It's a constant threat. We have taken precautions, but I'd rather not say what they are, or they wouldn't be precautions."

Some Hawai'i network providers have started to alert customers to prepare for a possible attack on their sites. But many said the chances of being hit by Chinese hackers were slim, compared to the random attacks they normally deal with.

"If you were to walk through the south side of Chicago at night, your chance of being mugged at random is a lot greater than being attacked by a (cyber) terrorist," said Clifton Royston, systems architect and co-founder of LavaNet, a Honolulu-based Internet service provider.

Chinese hackers have similarly attacked Taiwanese and Japanese sites during international disputes. In the most recent episode, the virtual war appears to have been provoked by the Chinese hackers.

Along with Web-site defacements, denial of service attacks also are a potential weapon. Such attacks disable sites by swamping them with repeated traffic. Hackers conduct such attacks by planting software such as the Internet worm discovered last month dubbed "Lion" that can be used to control compromised computers and will send user passwords to an e-mail address in China, the FBI said.