Network: The day the Times stood still

Last Sunday, on what should have been one of its busiest days ever, the mighty New York Times' website was forced offline by a group of hackers. Tamsin Todd reports
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Readers who logged into the New York Times web site last Sunday were in for a surprise. Instead of getting full coverage of the Starr report, they found themselves reading raunchy graphics and a cryptic message: "Since we are now Internet terrorists, we figure we should demand some ransom or something," it began. "So pay us 104 girlies, six billion in newspaper subscription and maybe a printing press or something. Not like you guys know what fair journalism is anyway."

It was the largest-ever hacker attack on a major media web site. Unable to get rid of the hacker's page, New York Times officials decided to take the site offline at 10.20am New York time, two hours after the early morning break-in. The site was shut down for more than nine hours on what was expected to be one of its busiest Sundays of the year, given the online publication of the Starr report two days earlier. As of this weekend, some sections of the New York Times site were still unavailable to readers.

The FBI's computer crime squad is investigating the break-in. A hacker organisation called Hacking For Girlies, or HFG, claimed responsibility for the attack. The jumbled message (part of which was embedded in HTML source code and not visible on the Web page itself) included obscene language, quotations from Voltaire and Tennyson and a poetic jab at the newspaper: "hanging here at new york times/is the best place to sling our rhymes/poor journalism these guys have the knack/which explains the good security they lack". It called for the release of convicted hacker Kevin Mitnick, and assailed the Times' technology reporter John Markoff and a New Mexico security consultant Caroline Meinel, among others, for their coverage of the hacking community. In interviews with The Independent, Markoff and Meinel talked about the attack. "I find it a particularly obnoxious and absurd way of protesting," said Markoff from the Times bureau in San Francisco. "Not only was this against the law, but it hurt people."

The hacker's page vehemently attacked Markoff for his coverage of the 1995 pursuit and capture of Mitnick, who is currently in a federal prison awaiting trial in January on charges of parole violation and several hacking- related crimes. Some members of the hacking underground believe Mitnick was unjustly arrested, and that Markoff's portrayal of the case was inaccurate.

In July, the hacker magazine 2600 protested outside the New York offices of Miramax Films, where a movie version of Markoff's book about the Mitnick case, Takedown (Hyperion 1996, co-written with Tsutomu Shimomura) is in production. Part of the Sunday message was addressed directly to Markoff: "Hi John Markoff, this one is for you. We expect front page like you promised. So why break our agreement and tell the world we are working together on this little hack? Do you have nightmares about helping imprison Kevin? Knowing that your lies and deceit helped bring down this justice?"

Carolyn Meinel is equally perplexed. When asked what she thought the point of the attack was, she replied, "I ask myself that question all the time. They're going to go to jail. Maybe they have some very deep, mysterious purpose." Meinel is an independent security consultant and author of The Happy Hacker (American Eagle Publications, 1998), which she describes as "a book about old-fashioned, harmless hacking, the kind of thing anyone can do to have fun with computers without breaking the law". She's currently writing a new book, Hacker Wars, about hacker gangs like HFG.

Earlier this year HFG attacked the computers of Rt66, a New Mexico Internet service provider where Meinel has an account, and Sunday's attack accused Meinel of baiting and trapping hackers. "She is writing a chapter about us in her second book. She has contacted HFG on numerous occasions asking us if we could show our `hacking prowess' (her words) so that she may cover it exclusively in her book... her goal all along has been to lead us on, watch us get busted, then write about us, a la Markoff/Mitnick, Shimomoru/Mitnick, Quittner/MOD, Stoll/Hess... see a pattern forming here? We sure do."

Markoff and Meinel are reluctant to respond to such claims. Still, it appears they know more about HFG than they are letting on.

I ask about the kind of relationship that develops between hackers and the writers who cover them. What risks will hackers take to get media attention? What promises will reporters make to build hackers' trust? Are the two groups mutually dependent? Markoff, who stopped writing about hackers several years ago, replies abruptly. "I have no relationship with these guys."

Meinel is a little more forthcoming. She confirms that she is writing about HFG in her book. "I'm sure they'll be in Hacker Wars. I can absolutely promise they'll be there."

How much of a threat to the global computer network are break-ins like this one? A big threat, says Markoff, pointing to the amount of time and effort being spent on the clean-up.

Win Schwartau of Infowar, an information warfare web resource and consultancy also mentioned in last Sunday's hack, concurs. "These are cowards and neo-nazis with no socially redeeming values, who refuse to engage in an intelligent debate." And John Vranesevich, founder of Antionline, a Web site that tracks hacker activity, has predicted that we can expect to see more break-ins as Mitnick's trial date approaches. "We're going to be seeing a strengthened effort in hacking Web sites to get the `Kevin Mitnick' name known."

Meinel takes a more conciliatory view. "They make a lot of noise. They send death threats and say a lot of nasty things. But when you get down to it, they don't actually do very much."

The hacked NYT page is at