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8/1/03 4:00:00 PM ET

Internet threat looms as thousands of hackers meet
Reuters, 08.02.03, 5:21 PM ET


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By Elinor Mills Abreu

LAS VEGAS, Aug 2 (Reuters) - Network experts, government agents and young would-be hackers debated real and theoretical threats to computer security on Saturday at the year's biggest Internet defense conference, even as the latest Microsoft software bug left computer networks open to widespread attack.

Day two of the three-day DefCon conference drew 5,000 geeks to the outskirts of America's gambling capital, where they heard security professionals detail the newest vulnerabilities of everything from phones to satellites to refrigerators.

But in a 24-hour party atmosphere where the legal and illicit mingle, the agenda of technical lectures and tip-sharing was overshadowed by the challenge disrupting Internet users in the real world beyond Las Vegas.

"Once a year, or every other year -- not often -- you see this type of widespread vulnerability with so many systems affected," said Marcus Sachs, director of the National Cyber Security Division of U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Sachs and other attendees said the latest Microsoft security hole affects several types of Microsoft Corp. (nasdaq: MSFT - news - people) Windows software that are widely used in business.

"In theory, you have all the makings of a worm," or a virus that can spread itself to other machines, Sachs said.

The so-called Remote Procedure Call vulnerability can allow a rogue computer user to remotely take over a machine or network of machines and put the computers out of service.

A government advisory warning of the latest vulnerability issued more than a week ago was updated on Thursday after nefarious programs designed to take advantage of the Microsoft software weakness began to spread on the Internet, Sachs said.


According to the SANS Institute, at least 2,000 machines were scanning the Internet looking for vulnerable computers, from which further attacks could be staged.

"It's definitely one of the worst (security) problems to happen in the last few years because it is so widespread," said Chris Wysopal, a member of security consulting firm AtStake.

"This could easily be turned into a worm like Slammer or Code Red," he said, referring to the nicknames for attacks in recent years that have hit millions of Internet users.

Microsoft has made available a software security patch at http://microsoft.com/technet/ and is encouraging network administrators to apply it to private networks.

Also, a new worm was circulating in e-mail in-boxes that purports to be from a system administrator, said Sachs. Network Associates rated the worm, dubbed "Mimail," a medium risk.

At the show, hackers entertained themselves in contests designed to show off their computer cracking skills and abilities at spotting undercover police agents, while others lounged by the pool sharing tips on computer attacks.

Now in it's 11th year, overt illegality has toned down since DefCon organizer Jeff Moss urged attendees to turn to more productive activities in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. cities.

Conference sessions were devoted to security of hand-held devices, maintaining privacy on the Internet and things like "mimicry," in which attendees learned how to avoid surveillance by hiding encrypted computer code amid innocent-looking text or pictures.

Another talk discussed the threat to newly emerging home automation systems in which everything from lights to coffee pots to refrigerators and sprinkler systems are hooked up to computer networks, making them potential targets of attack, according to Roberto Preatoni, founder of Zone H, an Estonian firm that records hacking attacks.

Copyright 2003, Reuters News Service

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