§ 1. National Insecurity
On Wednesday, December 6th, 2000, as is frequently the case, both Canadian national newspapers devoted thousands of lines of ink to computing and information technologies in their news and business section. This is hardly notable in and of itself now (though unforeseen by anyone a decade ago) as the mainstream media has been doting over the impact of the Internet for almost five years. Yet the front page of the Globe and Mail carried a story detailing how the former Soviet Union is now widely acknowledged (by security professionals in the rest of the world) to be producing the planet's best computer hackers. 1
Luckily, many of these young artists have begun following a program of self-restraint, hoping their skills and sense of decorum with eventually make them gainfully employable in the West. As it is however, young Russian hackers (especially from around the St. Petersburg area) are blamed for some spectacular stunts over the past year, including stealing the source code of Microsoft's new Windows ME operating system, sifting through the digital archives of the Pentagon and NATO, posting thousands of stolen credit card numbers on the World Wide Web and lifting millions from Western banks. These exploits have been going on since 1994, when a young mathematician Vladimir Levin, sitting at the computer in his St. Petersburg apartment, transferred $12 million US from the accounts of Citibank into those of his friends around the world. European security experts now cite Russian hackers as the single gravest threat to Western banks.
To anyone even remotely aware of the current economic situation in Russia, and given the people's history, none of this will come as any surprise. During the Soviet era, the nation was world-renowned for producing brilliant scientists, great mathematicians and masterful chess players; therefore retaining to this day a strong analytical tradition to draw upon. However, it must now feel largely abandoned by the West as it continues to waver in a gray area which is neither capitalist or state-controlled, but which rather seems to have taken on the worst grotesqueries of both systems.
Almost 90% of software and hardware in the region is pirated and the unemployment rate among even the most technically savvy is still very high. One does not need to look very far to see how this combination of economic desperation and know-how can lead to trouble. The same day the Russian hacker story ran in the Globe and Mail, the National Post reported the Montreal youth responsible for crippling the sites of CNN, Yahoo!, Amazon and Ebay in 1999 was back in trouble. 2 Here was a 16-year-old boy who drew the interest of international police agencies when his 'distributed denial of service', or ddos attacks, put the former giants of e-commerce down for almost a day, costing their parent corporations millions of dollars. Mafiaboy (his on-line moniker) is apparently showing little interest in most of his high-school classes these days, though after becoming the target of an global manhunt and being single-handedly demonized as a 'dire threat to the New Economy', it may be possible he may simply be finding social studies in a Montreal Mile End school just a little tame.
These are, however, just two passing examples of what information technology and global networks have made possible. The poorer, larger cities of this planet are (if global international development statistics are any measure) chockfull of disenfranchised impoverished young men who know how to code. On the morning of May 4, 2000 from a technical school in Manila, Onel de Guzman unleashed the ILOVEYOU virus upon the e-mail users of the world, and over the course a several days managed to inflict an estimated $1 billion US in damages to corporate systems.
Although this seems an insanely inflated figure at first, one needs only keep in mind there are now an estimated 3 billion e-mail messages circulating the information networks of the planet on any given day, and that electronic messaging of one form or another has now superceded the telephone in business communication in the West. The monetary transactions taking place over these same networks ran to the tune of $300 billion US in 1998, and those levels are expected to escalate as business begin targeting each other exclusively (rather than individual consumers) in the coming years. 4
§ 2. Information Poverty
Two sobering statistics come into play when you consider the position of young people in developing countries, be it Russia, the Philippines or Sub-Saharan Africa, which appeared in the Carnegie Foundation Report, Preventing Deadly Conflict, commissioned after the genocidal horrors of Rwanda came to light. The 50 poorest countries, home to one-fifth of the world's population, now account for less than two percent of global income, and their share continues to decrease, yet by the mid-1990s, over $1 trillion US changed hands each day on the electronic networks of the global marketplace.
As the report summarizes, "the benefits of technology do not fall equally among or within nations...technological innovation favors those who already operate in technologically sophisticated ways."5 The authors go on to point out a simple Internet connection for much of the planet is technically impossible due to infrastructure, or exorbitantly expensive (upwards of $100 US/mo. in sub-Saharan Africa for example), whereas in many developing countries an AK-47 can be had for a little as $6.6
Seen in this light, given population and economic projections for much of the developing world, hackers in the Philippines and the former Soviet Union (two countries with fairly high-priority funding status from Western development agencies) may soon be the least of the wired world's problems. There are far more desperate parts of the planet.
One of the most eloquent and well-argued books on the subject of global information inequities was written in 1996 by William Wresch, an American computer science professor who spent a year on an academic exchange program in Namibia. He came back from the trip staggered by what he had seen there, writing that for the underdeveloped and marginal nations of the world, "for the poor, the starving, the abused, the desperate, information access may be the only hope. For these people, the stakes are life and death...information makes the invisible visible...ultimately, it will bring help." 7 Wresch was able to travel extensively during his time in central and southern Africa, seeing first hand the economic problems and successes, particularly in connection with technology transfer and education.
Much of his fact-finding makes for depressing reading. He notes in 1990, while North America was publishing 461 new book titles per million people, Africa was producing 29. This is not a situation unique to Africa either, mentioning countries like Cuba or Sri Lanka, which while having satisfactory education systems, still produced negligible published work. Tanzania, he points out, published no books in the area of history at all in the 1980s. An entire decade in a people's history therefore goes unwritten, what Wresch calls "a typical problem for the very poor. If citizens want to learn about their nation, they have to learn it from outsiders." 8 In another example, he notes the same inequities extend even into the hard sciences:
The scientific output of 80% of the world is dismissed. Is there no
science there? The scientists working in developing countries think
there is. They think they do good science, work that is ignored by the
editors of major journals...but ignored, where else can they publish? In
local journals. The problem is that such journals are unknown and
unread by scientists in leading countries. 70% of Latin American
journals are not included in any index...what information is lost? 9
The looming chasm between the developed North and the rest of the planet only widens as technological innovation accelerates along the exponential curve of Moore's law. By some estimates, Western industrial computer chip manufacturers are now even beating that heady principle, which pushes the falling cost of hand-held communication and computers devices in North America. The difference being that the telecommunications infrastructure to support these networks were already in place when chip prices began to fall dramatically.
There is a self-perpetuating cycle built into the innovation then: where the network already exists, its growth, ubiquity and power continues to accelerate, bringing further innovations and applications. We in the West now can barely even keep up with the rocketing complexity of our own tools, given that the learning curve required to tackle each new technology will barely be tackled before the next replacement hits the market. Clearly this is not the case for the rest of the world,
The following nations have just one phone line per 100 people: China,
India, Kenya, Nicaragua, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe.
Between China and India, we have essentially half the world's population
working off one line per 100 people. Dozens of other countries have just
two, three or four lines per hundred people. For the most of the world then,
the telephone is not an accessible technology...half the planet is still waiting
to make its first call.10
Given this global disparity, and as mentioned above, the next generation of youth throughout the developing world take on a dynamic quality. If the prowess of young computer users in marginal economies around the world has already been displayed in past years (as with the Russian and Filipino hackers), what can the information networks of the affluent West expect to be on the horizon? Harper's Magazine, a bastion of American civil responsibility, reported in May 2000 on it Index page, "Change since 1987 in the percentage of sub-Saharan Africans living on less than $1 a day: 0." 11
As Thomas Homer-Dixon of the University of Toronto International Center for Peace Studies explains, "poor countries will need immense amounts of human ingenuity...their citizens will sometimes need to exhibit great tolerance, generosity and commitment to the commonweal." However, as Homer-Dixon emphasizes, severe scarcity and desperation will frequently mean these civil instincts will also run in short supply and the potential for crime and conflict increase. When this is taken into consideration, the final indicator for alarm should be the urban and demographic transitions underway (keeping in mind which demographic group, more than any other, tends to commit crime, be it with a computer or weapon):
In the absence of opportunities for easy external migration, much of the
developing world's surplus population is moving into cities...these cities are
expanding so rapidly that they are threatening to become, or in some cases
have already become, unmanageable...the demographic transition has
produced a youth bulge, which means these cities' populations have a
disproportionately large number of young people...in Africa, for example,
44% of the population is under 15 years of age. Underemployed,
urbanized young men are a particularly volatile group that can be easily
mobilized for radical political action.
1 Geoffrey York, "The Internet's Zen Pirates: A guru preaching moral cleanliness develops a breed of crime-fighting hackers," The Globe and Mail, Dec. 6, 2000, A1, A11. "The Citibank heist was reportedly traced back to one programmer, who knew how to access the company's financial intranet. He sold the secret to another for an almost proverbial bottle of vodka. Citibank was soon loosing upwards of 10,000 a day as stringers in places like Prague were hired by Russian org.crime to go to banks and withdraw the money in cash," explained Jetifi. See also "Russians Arrest 6 In Computer Thefts" New York Times, Sept 27, 1995; "Extradition in Citibank hacking case," Financial Times (UK) Sept 21, 1995; or
"Russian Bank Hacker Sentenced" at http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,10543,00.html.
2 Anon., "Mafiaboy jailed for violating bail by misbehaving at school," National Post, December 6, 2000, A12. Many seemingly agree this case is completely overblown. Jetifi, with great patience, also points out the following points about Mafiaboy's methodology:
See attrition.org, antioffline.com and packetstormsecurity.com for more on the technical aspects, or Cryptome for the wider policy issues of security.
- First, 'a ddos (which WarMachine describes as smurfing) utilizes SYN attacks. The principle being to 'root' (take over) many machines and install a trojan 'zombie' program which gives you control over the computer. A trojan "zombie" program is usually used on a windows 95/98/NT/2k/XP system, where things like telnet and ssh don't allow remote administration/manipulation. They normally communicate using the IRC protocol, with the IRC server setup on yet another rooted box. The rooted boxes can then be issued commands, using a given syntax. At this point the cracker can do anything the OS can. For win9x/NT machines (where sub7 is a popular trojan), you are limited to ping flooding, due to the absence of 'raw sockets' (access below IP which is below TCP and UDP).
- IP spoofing or SYN attacks were the crux of the attacks - mafiaboy had a large number of server farms under his control.' IP spoofing - the act of forging a return address on a packet - requires raw socket access. Raw sockets are an area of controversy. If you install certain libraries (one is called "libpcap"), on a windows9x/NT machine, then you can use raw sockets, but there is no out-of-the-box raw sockets functionality, and there are no known examples of the libraries being installed by computer intruders to access this functionality.
- Many ddos attacks (smurfing being an exception) require control of a large number of machines. SYN flooding generally requires large numbers of computers. "Rooting" is a term generally applied to UNIX systems, that have a "root" user who is basically omnipotent. To "root" means "to gain root access privileges" You have control over any computer that you have rooted.
3 Amy Hardon, "Living Riskier Electronically," New York Times, June 25, 2000, Sunday edition, D1, and "Charges dropped in 'Love Bug' virus case," National Post, August 22, 2000, A3.
4 Ronnie J. Phllips, "Digital Technology and Institutional Change from the Gilded Age to Modern Times: The Impact of the Telegraph and the Internet," Journal of Economic Issues 34/2 (June 2000): 278.
5 Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, Preventing Deadly Conflict (Washington, DC: Carnegie Foundation, 1997), 15.
6 "It is easy for the billion-odd people living in the rich countries to forget that the well-being of about half of the world's population of six billion remains directly tied to local natural resources. 60-70% of the world's poor people live in remote rural areas and depend on agriculture for their main income...over 40% of people one the planet - some 2.4 billion - use firewood, charcoal, straw or cow dung as their main source of energy...over 1.2 billion lack access to clean drinking water; many are forced to walk several miles a day to get what water they can find." Thomas Homer-Dixon, Environment, Scarcity and Violence (Princeton: University Press, 1999), 13.
7 William Wresch, Disconnected: Haves and Have-Nots in the Information Age (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 16.
8 Ibid., 40. Wresch states later in the book, "By one estimation, 80% of what is known about Africa is located not in Africa but in the libraries and government offices of Europe and the US...one guideline says libraries should have 100 books per student to ensure a range and depth of coverage. The library of the University of Namibia contains eight per student...the United Nations has a project underway to link African universities and their libraries. It is providing computer equipment, modems and expertise. What it can't provide are phone lines...Africa's phone lines can rarely handle high speeds. Despite recent attempts, the UN can't even reach Madagascar at 300 baud...lines elsewhere often lose messages at speeds above 1200 baud...as a result, people who might be helped most by e-mail are limited by its use." (130) Meanwhile, a recent study by Wired pithily entitled "Africa.com" (July 2000, p. 141-42), shows the vast majority of Africa is still serviced by one Internet Service Provider per country at best, and that Egypt, Monaco and South Africa are the only nations to have more than 20 ISPs. Again, even here one can see greater problems, Egypt for example has 40 ISPs, an estimated 600,000 computers, but only 11% of its population have access to sanitation and only 64% with access to safe drinking water.
9 Ibid., p.84, and W.W. Gibbs, "Lost Science in the Third World," Scientific American, April 1995, 92-99.
10 Ibid., p. 125.
11 "Harper's Index", Harper's Magazine, May 2000, 13.
12 Thomas Homer-Dixon, Environment, Scarcity and Violence (Princeton: University Press, 1999), 44.
13 Ibid., 58. A compelling factor in the 'digital divide' research going on at UNESCO and other international organizations, but which is often not mentioned, must be wealthy nation's fears of the possible scenarios arising from the tracking of disenfranchised groups. For security analysts this must be a major motivator in intervention schemes. Interestingly enough, this is not far from the trepidation which pushed for public education and libraries in the West: "Several factors have contributed to the growth of public libraries, from upper-class philanthropy, paternalist sympathies, fear of the untutored masses, and a desire to increase skills...whatever divided these motives...what lay behind them all was a notion that information was a resource which belonged to everyone rather than a commodity which might be proprietary and hence privately owned." In that much then, librarian's have been on a sort of front-line between the affluent and 'the masses' from the very beginning. See Frank Webster Theories of the Information Society (NY: Routledge, 1995), 112.