How much damage can cyber attackers do?

December 8, 2010 (CHICAGO)

Julian Assange was arrested on sex crimes and is jailed in London awaiting extradition proceedings on a Swedish arrest warrant that is not connected to the leaks of classified documents on his website, Wikileaks. His supporters have launched internet attacks on Mastercard, Swedish prosecutors and a group that froze Assange's bank account.

Assange's stepfather, who said Julian has a strong senses of right and wrong. He described Assange as a bright child who always fought for underdogs. Brett Assange said, "He was always very angry about people ganging up on other people."

Assange's supporters take credit for bringing down Mastercard's website and now they appear to be targeting Visa. The pre-internet equivalent to this type of attack would be if a number of people were unhappy with the actions of a company and organized a group to call corporate headquarters non-stop. That would jam the phone lines and potentially cripple business.

That's what's happened to these websites. The added effect -- Assange and his supporters have received a lot of worldwide attention.

"They're all timing out," said Valerie Scarlata, who is watching the cyber war from a computer lab on the city's Near South Side. "It doesn't take people, it takes computer power."

Somewhere scattered all over the world a group estimated a little more than 1,000 people are using their computers to send so many electronic pings to Mastercard's website it crashed.

"If you think about one to two thousand people controlling another one thousand computers each and you do that math, that's a while lot of computers attacking one specific website," said Scarlata.

Scarlata, who teaches courses in ethical hacking and cybersecurity at Illinois Institute of Technology, said she's also seeing evidence the attackers are trying unsuccessfully to takedown Amazon and PayPal, two sites that recently cutoff a pipeline of money to Wikileaks. A counter-attack has shut down access to the Wikileaks site in some countries, but clones continue to replace them.

"It is not derailing us in any way," said Kristin Hrafnsson, Wikileaks spokesperson.

So-called "denial of service" attacks have been around since the internet became available to the public.

"It's a way to get recognition, get noticed by shutting down a site for even a small amount of time," said Peter Traven, FBI Chicago, Cyber Crimes Squad.

Traven is the FBI's cybercrimes squad in Chicago. He says consumers don't have much to fear from attacks on corporate websites like Mastercard.

"If Mastercard's website is brought down, the site can't be accesses but the actual customer data is secured in all the normal ways a company would do that and it's not connected to the website."

The FBI says cyber criminals can be hard to track, but most leave behind some sort of electronic footprint that can be followed to possibly build a criminal case.

In 2009 the Google News website went down when so many people went their looking for information on Michael Jackson's death. That wasn't a cyber-attack like we're seeing now, but the end result is the same.

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