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Posted at 10:26 a.m. PST Tuesday, February 15, 2000

Ever heard of a Digital Barbarian?

Special to

Audio version of the column

Today, so many of us are using PCs and the Internet, we're actually beginning feel pretty confident around technology. It's not hard to see how this might have happened. The miracle of the word processor made us all professional writers, the spreadsheet made us CFOs, and the Internet browser, research gurus.

It's all made us feel pretty empowered. But perhaps, falsely so. The bald truth is -- most of us are dependent on technology that other people build for us, and deliver in a nice, clean package.

David Wilson, Jon Healey and Sam Diaz covered the recent shutdowns of major Internet Web sites for the San Jose Mercury News. Yahoo, Amazon, CNN, eBay and a brand new IPO,, were all attacked over the course of several days.

All at once, the message came through loud and clear -- hackers, using computer programs readily available on the Internet, could cripple our largest Web sites.

And suddenly, many of us didn't feel quite so empowered.

America is a society which has been fueled by sophisticated technology for decades. We sent men to the moon long before we could even imagine using a cell phone, leaving a voicemail message, or flipping through 50 TV channels. We expect big-time technology. But there's an unspoken rule -- we expect it to work.

I've been watching the public's reaction to this hacker attack with great interest. The idea that some person or persons could successfully interfere with our most popular technologies is inconceivable. That the tools to wreak this havoc might be readily available on the Internet is almost beyond reason.

One impression that fascinates me is the idea that whoever did this is smarter than the FBI and all the companies that were hit. A real case of the bad guys are smarter than the good guys.

The fact is, this is not about who's smarter. It's about people who want to create a situation. If 2,000 people decided to surround the Supreme Court building, effectively shutting down all normal comings and goings, would they be smarter that the Supreme Court Justices? Of course, not.

It's goes without saying that whoever did this is plenty smart. But make no mistake. This is not a contest of smarts. This is a contest of wills.

I'm also a bit chagrined by people who can barely collect their email, declaring that any of us can easily go out to the Internet, and get the programs that created this mess. As if you could type in a Web address, point and click on the organization of your choice, and boom, their Web site goes down.

While the tools are out there and available, whoever did this had to do some real work. They needed technical expertise, a certain threshold of computational resources and a commitment to locate powerful, yet vulnerable, networked computers. They also needed to know how to deploy these tools, and take a running guess as to what it would take to shut down the world's largest Internet portals.

No matter what, one question always pops up: `Can't they just build some kind of technology to once and for all protect us from this?` Well, the simple answer is `No.`

For every Great Wall of China, there's a cunning and motivated Barbarian on the other side, just salivating to get in.

Five Minutes airs in the San Francisco Bay Area on KQED, 88.5FM, every Sunday night at10p.m.andKALW, 91.7FM, every Tuesday at noon. Outside the Bay Area, contact your local NPR station or Armed Forces Broadcaster for air times. Five Minutes is produced in association with Tech Nation.'' Comments and inquiries may be e-mailed to

  © 2000 Mercury Center. The information you receive online from Mercury Center is protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The copyright laws prohibit any copying, redistributing, retransmitting, or repurposing of any copyright-protected material. Mercury Center privacy policy
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