Companies around the world join forces to repair massive Internet flaw

Imagine sitting at your desk and logging onto your bank's Web site to check your accounts. Everything looks normal - but after three failed attempts to log in you are told that you must contact your bank. Just minutes later your bank accounts have been emptied. This scenario might have been the work of science fiction until last week's announcement of a major design flaw in the Domain Name System (DNS) that runs the Internet. Our sister site, AccountingWEB.co.uk provides this information.

The online heist really could have come from the script of a disaster movie. Over six months ago a researcher stumbled almost by chance across a serious flaw in the way the Internet works. The problem was not a software flaw - which might affect a particular manufacturer or technology - but a fundamental design flaw which affects just about every piece of software ever written to power the Internet. This was the type of flaw that would allow a criminal to send you directly to his own computer every time you thought you were talking to your bank.

The unprecedented discovery also led to an unprecedented reaction from the world's key software and hardware vendors. More than 80 rival software and hardware companies have worked together over the past few months to develop a fix and then released coordinated patches last week.

What's the problem?

Computers only think of themselves in terms of IP (Internet protocol) addresses - unintelligible numbers that uniquely represent every computer or device on the planet. When you want to call up your bank or the latest news, it's unlikely that you'll remember to type 161.113.4.8 or 212.58.253.67 into your browser.

Instead, it's much easier to remember hsbc.com or bbc.com - and that's where the DNS or Domain Name System comes in. Put simply, the Domain Name System is like a giant collection of phone books for the Internet. With so many domain names around, it's impossible to keep everything in one place. So DNS servers are spread around the world, acting like phone books for your local area.

Just imagine the havoc you could wreak if you could rewrite the world's phone books. On the Internet, your e-mail and Web traffic would be at the behest of anyone who wanted it. You could redirect virtually any Internet traffic at the touch of a button.

Whenever you type you bank's Web address (URL) into your browser, your machine checks its nominated DNS server. If that server doesn't know the answer, the computer finds the server that does and then keeps a record of the data it found in a "cache" in case you need to look up the same computer again.

Given the right circumstances, it is possible to "poison" this cache by altering the data it contains so that instead of taking you to your bank's computers you might end up at a criminal's door instead. And you'd be none the wiser.

Should we all be worried?

In short: no. The big news here is not the DNS flaw. Massive though it is, it is being dealt with. In any case, software and design flaws are nothing new to the Internet, and neither are flaws within the DNS system itself.

The big news is the way the whole affair has been handled. Competing businesses worked together to fix a potentially critical problem with the Internet, culminating in this unique, coordinated response. What this proves is that organizations such as CERT (Computer Emergency Readiness Team) and other bodies tasked with tracking on-line risks are able to coordinate vendors and have a real impact in making the Internet a safer, more secure place.

Just a few years ago such a response would have been unimaginable. Today, it's a reality.

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