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Wire Pirates

Someday the Internet may become an
information superhighway, but right now it is more like a 19th-century railroad that
passes through the badlands of the Old West. As waves of new settlers flock to cyberspace
in search for free information or commercial opportunity, they make easy marks for
sharpers who play a keyboard as deftly as Billy the Kid ever drew a six-gun.

It is difficult even for those who ply it
every day to appreciate how much the Internet depends on collegial trust and mutual
forbearance. The 30,000 interconnected computer networks and 2.5 million or more attached
computers that make up the system swap gigabytes of information based on nothing more than
a digital handshake with a stranger.

Electronic impersonators can commit slander
or solicit criminal acts in someone else´s name; they can even masquerade as a trusted
colleague to convince someone to reveal sensitive personal or business information.

"It´s like the Wild West", says
Donn B. Parker of SRI: "No laws, rapid growth and enterprise - it´s shoot first or
be killed."

To understand how the Internet, on which so
many base their hopes for education, profit and international competitiveness, came to
this pass, it can be instructive to look at the security record of other parts of the
international communications infrastructure.

The first, biggest error that designers seem
to repeat is adoption of the "security through obscurity" strategy. Time and
again, attempts to keep a system safe by keeping its vulnerabilities secret have failed.

Consider, for example, the running war
between AT&T and the phone phreaks. When hostilities began in the 1960s, phreaks could
manipulate with relative ease the long-distance network in order to make unpaid telephone
calls by playing certain tones into the receiver. One phreak, John Draper, was known as
"Captain Crunch" for his discovery that a modif...

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