Internet banks on security alert over software glitch

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The Independent Online

Serious flaws have been discovered in the software that controls all internet communications - and hackers may already be exploiting them, warn experts.

Serious flaws have been discovered in the software that controls all internet communications - and hackers may already be exploiting them, warn experts.

The realisation has triggered the highest level of security alert among network administrators. It means that e-mails can be intercepted, passwords stolen, and website users diverted without their knowledge to fake sites, such as on-line banks, to steal their log-in details.

Less dangerous, but equally annoying, is the sudden disappearance of websites from the net and the redirecting of would-be visitors to a different site, a process known as "domain-hijacking". Microsoft has already been the victim of such attacks, which led to its site disappearing two weeks ago.

The biggest problem about the flaws is that they cannot be remedied centrally because they exist in the software running on hundreds of individual computers called "routers", which direct traffic all over the internet. Each router is the responsibility of a separate organisation.

Every week many flaws are found in the software used on the internet. Those requiring widespread attention are announced by Cert, the official US Computer Emergency Response Team based in Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh. Such announcements are usually spread by e-mail and with a notice on Cert's web page.

But this time, Cert took the unusual step of holding a press conference to announce the "vulnerability". Jeffrey Lanza, an internet security analyst for Cert, warned that it could be weeks before the extent of the damage is known. "We are in a race against the clock to inform people to protect their systems," added Mr Lanza.

Robin Smith, of the Government's computer security advisor scheme at the eavesdropping centre GCHQ, said hackers will exploit the security flaw to develop software "scripts" which they will pass to less expert cyber-criminals, or "script kiddies".

"Generally, attacks are increasing in their complexity," he said. "But with intelligent hackers producing and distributing an easy-to-use code to 'demonstrate' the problem, then 'script kiddies' can simply take this code and rerun it. "

The announcement of the flaws has led disappointed hackers to wage war on Network Associates, the software company which found the flaw, by letting loose a virus in an attempt to bring down Network Associates' website.

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