WASHINGTON -- This week's computer attacks on Internet sites are the largest in memory but are not particularly sophisticated and easily could have been launched by one 15-year-old boy, a senior FBI official said Wednesday.
Ron Dick, chief of the FBI's computer investigation section, said the bureau could not solve the crime or prevent future Internet vandalism without considerable help from the private sector. "We're going to need the help of everyone in the community to resolve this," Dick told a news conference at FBI headquarters.
Attorney General Janet Reno said the motive and identity of the attacker or attackers are not known but, "We're committed to taking steps to ensure that e-commerce remains a secure place to do business."
"This is a wakeup call," said Commerce Secretary William Daley. "I don't think these incidents should cause people not to go online to do whatever business theyre doing."
Dick said the week's vandalism was accomplished using "distributed denial of service" tools.
In such attacks, a hacker hides these tools, known as daemons, on hundreds or even thousands of innocent third-party computers. The daemons can be triggered later from a remote location to launch simultaneous attacks on a single target, such as Yahoo! or eBay. The attacking daemons give false addresses so they are harder to trace.
The volume of attacks overwhelms the target and causes it to cease operations, much the same way that a very heavy volume of telephone calls can tie up a phone system and leave most users with no dial tone or a busy signal, Dick said.
Many tools for such an attack exist on Internet Web sites, and anyone can download them, he said. "They do not take much technical expertise to use," Dick said. "A 15-year-old kid could launch these attacks. This is not something that it takes a great deal of sophistication to do."
But Dick noted that since the FBI does not know who conducted the attacks, it's "always a possibility" that a foreign government is responsible.
"Until you get to the keyboard being utilized, you don't know what you're dealing with," Dick said. He noted that most similar, past attacks used some overseas computers as well as ones in this country.
Dick could not remember any attacks that affected as many millions of people as those this week.
In addition to not knowing who is responsible, the FBI also does not know how many innocent third-party computers were used to launch them and does not know if the attacks have ended, Dick said.
Agents are starting from victim computers and tracking the attacks back through the Internet service providers that delivered the attacking daemons. Dick likened it to tracking a trail left by bank robbers from the bank to their lair. Tom Burke, of the General Services Administration, said no attacks had been traced thus far to government computers.
Dick urged the private sector to report any attacks promptly so tracing can begin quickly. And he urged private Internet sites to keep logs of traffic, install any tools developed to thwart such attacks and keep them updated.
Over the New Year's weekend, the FBI posted tools that could detect whether two types of daemons were hidden on a computer system. Some 2,600 businesses downloaded the FBI tools at no cost and three found such daemons, prompting the FBI to open criminal investigations of who put them there.