Jim Armitage: Hacking exposes shoddy internet engineering

Global Outlook

If your access to the internet was on go-slow this week, join the club. Across the globe, hundreds of millions of people suffered as peculiarly disenchanted and, presumably, bored hackers drilled big virtual holes into the foundations of the global world wide web.

Quite why these attackers do such things is a mystery to me. I know it's cold outside, but I fail to see why they can't just read books or (assuming them to be mathematically minded), play chess instead.

It's been reported that the attacks were the result of a tiff between some hackers and an anti-spamming group. I'm sure they feel their grievances warrant inconveniencing millions of people.

However, these latest attacks may actually serve a purpose. They highlight just how sloppily much of the engineering within the internet's global system has been done, and how little care the world's biggest internet companies take in checking who is sending messages through their servers.

The hackers launched their attacks with what's known in the trade as "botnets". Not a type of hosiery purveyed in Soho boutiques, but geekspeak for robot networks – networks of thousands of computers which are effectively infected, taken over and controlled remotely by hackers. The botnets were used to fire billions of messages simultaneously into the web's servers, clogging them up and grinding them to a crawl.

This week, the hackers have been attacking the crossing points that keep data flowing and connecting around the world, namely the internet exchanges of London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Hong Kong. London's Linx exchange came under heavy fire, particularly last Saturday, when yours truly was trying to find a decent furniture removal company online and, it seems, unjustifiably blaming my wi-fi connection.

The attacks appear to have taken a lull for a couple of days, although there are rumours that they will resume next week. However, some experts say the extent of the attacks could finally shake big web firms into getting to grips with the often-shoddy configurations of their equipment that make them vulnerable. And, critically, shock them into telling the difference between the fake data from botnets and bona fide stuff from real customers.

One thing is for sure, attacks like this always create loads more lucrative work for computer engineers – the best of whom often seem to be former hackers. I'm sure I'm not the only layman who smells a rat …

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