I'm going to put on my computer nerd hat and talk about Internet security. Luckily for geeks everywhere, a half-dozen high profile Internet sites -- including this portfolio's holding Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO) -- got attacked recently. Luckily? In a way, yes. The recent Internet security problems weren't a wake-up call to the 'Net. It was the snooze alarm going off.

Corporate politics state that if you know about a problem ahead of time, you don't fix it. Instead you wait for a disaster to occur, and secretly prepare a solution in the meantime. That way you can be a hero and save the day, with something big and important and -- above all -- something obvious to take credit for.

Most geeks generally aren't very interested in playing politics, which is why the Year 2000 problem worked out the way it did. We warned people about the problem before it hit, and scared them into spending the billions of dollars and millions of man-hours required to fix everything BEFORE any major disasters occurred. Then, when we were largely successful in preventing bad things from hitting the fan, we wound up feeling kind of sheepish about the whole deal. Through great cost and effort, nothing much happened. Quick way to earn a promotion, that. Management was just thrilled.

The next major item on the collective geek agenda is computer security, which we all put off worrying about until after Y2K because we were just too busy. Now that we're on the other side of the big deadline, most of us haven't got the energy left to convince management that security is a problem. We're a pretty shy bunch to begin with. We discuss security issues among ourselves and write a few articles in technical magazines about the need to do something about it, but we're almost afraid to broach the topic to a boss who is BOUND to complain about all the money that got spent on Y2K.

And then Yahoo! got pushed off the 'Net for a few hours, followed by eBay, buy.com, CNN, ZDNet, E*Trade, Datek Online, and who knows who else. The attack wasn't any clever exploitation of some security vulnerability in the sites in question, as most of them run various Unix severs with all the latest security fixes. They're as close as anything on the 'Net gets to being impregnable. Yet for all intents and purposes, they were taken down at will. And if the biggest names on the 'Net can be blocked up, then no site is safe.

What happened is called a "distributed denial of service" attack, in which hundreds of computers around the 'Net focus on a single site and transmit as much data as they can at it in order to flood its communications capability. This doesn't mean that the site is broken into, or that any data on it gets changed or that non-public data somehow is made available. Just that the site is rendered unusable by drowning out its normal traffic in a plethora of random garbage that eats all the available bandwidth and leaves it too busy to respond to any real users.

How did these hundreds of computers start attacking Yahoo!? Simple -- they were broken into and co-opted, probably by some teenager who knows a single way to break into a certain type of flawed computer, and who scanned the entire Internet to find a bunch of machines with that particular vulnerability. The problem with Internet security isn't just that a poorly maintained site can be broken into, but that any insecure computer on the 'Net can be turned into a weapon against other computers. Geeks have been saying this for a while, but nobody was listening.

A denial of service attack can be blocked by tracing it back to its source and cutting that computer's connection to the rest of the Internet. But this is hard to do if the data packets originating from each of the attacking computers have the wrong return address. So why would the routers along the way forward packets that have an obviously incorrect return address? (After all, if they know which connection to forward an outgoing packet TO, why can't they check which connection an incoming packet logically could have come FROM?) That's a question geeks everywhere have been itching to ask router manufacturers like Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO). As we said, Internet security could use a bit of work.

So now management has to come to the geeks with a problem, rather than the other way around. This means the geeks don't have to lobby for permission to fix stuff, or justify the resources used to do so. And if we're successful, our efforts might actually be appreciated rather than taken for granted. For once, more or less by accident, corporate politics seems to be working out in our favor.


One quick tip for managers attempting to broach this subject with their technical staff: It's not "computer hacking." A hacker is a term of respect among geeks for someone who's really good with computers. The word you're looking for is cracker, or in this case probably a script kiddie. Click on the links for the appropriate definitions from the New Hacker's Dictionary.

Finally, Valentine's Day is right around the corner, and we've got some stocks that Fools are head over heels for. Check 'em out, especially the teeny-bopper infatuation for Citigroup. Fool on.

- Oak