By BART JARMAN
NASA was the latest victim of computer hackers when their Web site was invaded and altered last Wednesday.
Hackers altered the page and left messages claiming responsibility and condemned officials for jailing well-known hackers.
Government Internet sites have been targeted for abuse several times.
Last August, computer hackers broke into the Justice Department’s Web server and plastered their homepage with swastikas, obscenities and a picture of Adolf Hitler.
The CIA’s homepage fell victim when hackers added obscenities and changed the name of the page to the “Central Stupidity Agency.”
In December, hackers planted a pornographic picture on the Air Force’s Web page.
“The Internet is basically an unregulated environment,” said John C. Higgins, professor of computer science. “The security features of the Internet are essentially non-existent.”
Hackers can cause all sorts of trouble for Internet users. According to BYU systems programmer Don Kitchen, most systems can be broken into rather easily.
Hackers can access all kinds of different information, Kitchen said. They can even use Windows’ own powersave options to shut down your computer, manipulate icons to destroy data or alter information or read online information.
Viruses are always a problem, especially in larger programs.
“If it is sufficiently complex, it is impossible to know what a program does,” Higgins said.
It’s as easy to get someone’s credit card information off the Internet as it would be for a restaurant employee to lift your number when you use your card.
“It is as if you allowed someone to type on your computer while you go out to lunch,” said Simson Garfinkel, a columnist for Hotwired magazine and the Boston Globe.
One popular Internet browser, Microsoft Internet Explorer, has been particularly vulnerable. Last week, Microsoft announced a downloadable update to improve its security after numerous break-ins.
“This update is an immediate response to ensure that Microsoft customers continue to have a safe Internet experience with the software,” Microsoft said in a news release.
During the last few months, Dan Farmer, an independent security researcher and consultant, conducted an unscientific survey of Internet sites and tested their level of security, without compromising the systems.
In the study, Farmer tested the security of 2,200 different computer systems, including banks, credit unions, newspapers and sex sites.
Farmer found that between 70 and 80 percent of the sites had “serious security flaws.”
“I’d estimate that by using more brute force and some wiliness, you could break into about 75 percent of the systems I briefly examined,” he said.
Farmer found that of the banks in the survey, 68 percent were highly vulnerable.
“Even if a hacker can’t get at the real money,” he said. “There’s a big public image problem. If you logged into your bank’s web site and found it trashed, you might be very upset.”
Farmer admits that, to be fair, there were many sites that have done a better job of protecting their online resources.