The day East Timor was deleted

Cyberspace is turning nasty - and this time it's political. The virtual world is under attack by terrorist hackers.
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The Independent Culture
East Timor disappeared from the map the other day. The removal was not physical; there was no tsunami or undersea volcano to swallow up the island, which has been illegally occupied by the Indonesian government since 1975.

Its disappearance was prompted by an invisible flood of electronic pulses which poured down the telephone wires into a small office in Dublin, Ireland. "I got a yell from the other room, `Unplug now!' and I ran down the stairs and unplugged it from the wall, no ifs or buts," recalls John Plunkett, a systems administrator at Connect Ireland, an Internet service provider.

From that moment, anyone trying to e-mail somebody with an East Timor address, or access one of the country's Web pages, would have faced a blank screen. It was one of the most effective cyber-terrorism attacks on record: a whole country was suddenly cut off from the outside cyberworld.

Many countries would see this kind of co-ordinated attack as a mere foreshadowing of what could be on the way. With society so interconnected, so reliant on multiple sources of media, the best way to strike at a country is to sabotage its lines of communication. The most effective attack is the one your enemy does not know is coming, does not even know has occurred. Last March Louis Freeh, the director of the FBI, asked a Senate committee for increased funding to cover "several priority initiatives, including those in the areas of counter-terrorism and cyber-crime". The week before, the US Attorney-General Janet Reno said: "Our systems are more vulnerable than ever to attack because of our unprecedented reliance on technology."

Martin Maguire, a director at Connect Ireland, knew that in setting up a "virtual" East Timor on his company's computers he was taking some risks. "It's a virtual country in that in political terms, it is not allowed to exist in the real world by the Indonesian government - they just call it part of Indonesia - so its only sovereignty is in cyberspace."

On 7 December 1997, the 22nd anniversary of the island's invasion, he registered his company as the "top level domain" for East Timor (their machines acted like a directory enquiries database for any Internet computer looking to connect to an East Timorese), with the jailed resistance leader Xanana Gusmao as its official administrator: Gusmao's inclusion was necessary because he is based in East Timor, as the international rules for setting up those domains requires.

From then on, Maguire and his team vetted applications from anyone who wanted to set up a Web page with the suffix ".tp" (the allotted abbreviation of Timorese Internet addresses, just as ".uk" denotes British people and organisations).

That was not popular with the Indonesian authorities: a spokesman for the Indonesian embassy in London said: "The handover of the domain to the government of East Timor is beyond imagination, since the government of East Timor will not exist."

Four months later the hacking attacks began. The first ones were clumsy. But they grew increasingly sophisticated until last week they reached a level where the hackers could have altered the crucial database: thus someone trying to find a "Free East Timor" page might instead have been directed to "Why Indonesia Was Right To Invade". There would be no way for the casual surfer to know that their computer had been subverted.

"It was so well organised, so deliberate and so skilful that whoever was doing it must be getting paid," said Mr Maguire.

The attack has been repelled for now, but were it not for careful monitoring of systems, East Timor might have disappeared as a separate entity for the second time in its existence.

The United States military and government are aware that wars in the future will be fought on every front, including the virtual one. On the same day that Freeh was asking for more cash, Bill Gates, head of Microsoft, was insisting to another Senate committee that his company does not have a monopoly in the world of computers. With a nice sense of irony, a team of hackers launched an attack within the US which froze thousands of machines - in military and government offices - connected to the Internet. The hackers made their point: they only targeted machines running Microsoft's Windows software.

But why, you may wonder, should an attack on the "virtual" East Timor lead to a computer being hastily unplugged in Dublin? Questions like that assume that the real world somehow maps directly to that of cyberspace. But as more people are discovering, that is not how it works. Cyberspace is taking on the characteristics of the world which Gibson, in his groundbreaking science-fiction novel Neuromancer, described. It isn't real, but it affects you profoundly, every day. In the virtual world, power does not depend on how big you are physically; it depends on how much notice people take of you, and how much attention you can force them to pay. The virtual world of East Timor may reside in a Dublin computer. You can also perform cyber-terrorism against people, companies, entire classes of software (such as Microsoft's operating systems). It doesn't take a gun or physical training. An eager hacker with a good supply of fizzy drinks and an Internet connection can bring any of the above to their knees - virtually speaking (and physically, if they end up having to unplug their computer).

Yet sometimes, becoming a virtual country offers real benefits. Tonga, for example, has the fortuitous suffix of ".to". And with English still the dominant language on the Web, that attracted the attention of companies eager to have a snappy address: would a travel agent be interested by the address "" or ""? For Tonga, with a gross domestic product of only about pounds 120m, the pounds 100 registration fee for each new domain in its corner of cyberspace would come in handy.

The Net is also becoming a more political place - where revolutionary groups decide who will host their Web page almost before they decide when to start the revolution, and hackers change the contents of political parties' Web pages (as happened to both the Tories and Labour at the last election).

Harmless stuff? Not necessarily. The other day, California saw its first court case brought under a "cyberstalker" law that came into force on 1 January. The prosecution claims that after a woman rejected his (physical) advances, Gary Dellapenta placed an ad under her name on a bulletin board, claiming she was seeking male partners to help her live out a rape fantasy. Those who responded (and you must wonder about their mental state) were sent her physical description, address and details of her home alarm. Dellapenta has pleaded not guilty. But the fact that such a law has been deemed necessary shows how the virtual world is lapping over into our physical one.

The more immediate worries are in the real world. Connect Ireland knows a little about that; it has tweaked the nose of a government which has (as a representative admitted on TV recently) engaged in torture and rape. That is hardly something to be done lightly. About a year ago, Mr Maguire recalls, he got "a couple of phone calls from, shall I say, an Eastern gentleman. They weren't very nice."

Was he worried? He chuckles. "I said look, pal, you can't worry me. I'm Irish. I've been terrorised by professionals." He chuckles again.