At 8 a.m. on May 4, 2001, anyone trying to access the White House Web site got an error message. By noon, whitehouse.gov was down entirely, the victim of a so-called distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack. Somewhere in the world, hackers were pinging White House servers with thousands of page requests per second, clogging the site. Also attacked were sites for the U.S. Navy and various other federal departments.
A series of defacements left little doubt about where the attack originated. "Beat down Imperialism of American [sic]! Attack anti-Chinese arrogance!" read the Interior Department's National Business Center site. "CHINA HACK!" proclaimed the Department of Labor home page. "I AM CHINESE," declared a U.S. Navy page. By then, hackers from Saudi Arabia, Argentina and India had joined in. The military escalated its Infocon threat level from normal to alpha, indicating risk of crippling cyber-attack. Over the next few weeks, the White House site went down twice more. By the time the offensive was over, Chinese hackers had felled 1,000 American sites.
The cyber-conflict grew out of real-world tensions. A month earlier, a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft flying off the southern coast of China had collided with a Chinese F-8 fighter jet. The American pilot landed safely, but the Chinese pilot was killed. China's hackers lashed out. It wasn't the first foreign attack on American sites, but it was the biggest -- "the First World Hacker War," as the New York Times dubbed it.
The Chinese attacks were poorly coordinated, and it's tempting to dismiss them as harmless online vandalism. But subsequent attacks have become more serious. In the past two years, Chinese hackers have intercepted critical NASA files, breached the computer system in a sensitive Commerce Department bureau, and launched assaults on the Save Darfur Coalition, pro-Tibet groups and CNN. And those are just the attacks that have been publicly acknowledged. Were these initiated by the Chinese government? Who is doing this?
Peng left two e-mail addresses, his chat information and the screen names of four other hackers. He soon expanded his online profile with a blog, photos, and papers describing his hacking openly. But his boasts went unnoticed until 2005, when a linguist in Kansas typed the right words into Google, found Peng, and pulled back the curtain on a growing danger.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.