Illustration by Bob Ault was an anonymous phone callthat tipped us off. A man, who we like to think spoke in hushed, conspiratorial tones, told Weekly reporter Anthony Pignataro that "someone" had hacked into the El Toro Airport Info Site (www.eltoroairport.org).
Hot damn, we thought, a story! We immediately began running through the list of possible culprits. Who could possibly bear a grudge against Len Kranser, editor of the El Toro Airport Info Site and a staunch, vocal opponent of the proposed international airport in South County? The pro-airport supervisors? County Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier? Newport Beach billionaire developer George Argyros? We toyed briefly with the image of Argyros, hunched over a Pentium in his basement on Harbor Island, hacking his way into the El Toro site, fueled only by countless cans of Coke and M&Ms, but we dismissed it as implausible.
But before we dusted off our thumbscrews and started whetting the spikes on our Iron Maiden, we figured we should do a little investigation. So we fired up our Web browser and typed in Kranser's URL. Sure enough, instead of that annoying little airplane-taking-off graphic that usually greets us, we got the home page for something called Tecpac (www.tecpac.com.br), which appeared to be a Windows NT consulting firm in Brazil. (We wish we could be more certain, but our Portuguese is a little rusty.)
Soon afterward, it became impossible to get to either address; the computer just sat there, trying fruitlessly to connect, emitting a sad little whirring noise. And by the next morning—Nov. 23—the El Toro Airport Info Site was back up and running.
Only now, when we tried to get to the Tecpac site, we pulled up the El Toro site there as well.
Hmmm. This was starting to look less like a hack and more like a technical screw-up. Most hackers (as opposed to crackers, who are generally out to do malicious damage) have a healthy sense of irony about their attacks. This summer, an unknown person transferred ownership of the infamous God Hates Fags domain name (www.godhatesfags.com) to a pro-gay site called God Loves Fags (www.godlovesfags.com). The owners of the latter site disclaimed all knowledge of the changeover but were happy to take advantage of it.
So we were skeptical. Had the El Toro Airport Info Site been rerouted to, say, the pro-airport El Toro Master Development Program site (www.eltoromdp.org), it would have been hackish; sending visitors to a Brazilian computer-consulting firm was just nonsensical. Perhaps they were the 1999 equivalent of Dada artists.
Kranser still doesn't know what caused the breakdown, but he's pretty sure it wasn't a hack. "I'm not a techie, so I'm not certain what happened," he said. "But I think it was some sort of addressing problem. I don't know how it originated."
Kranser said the outage began at about 3 p.m. on Nov. 21 and lasted nearly 48 hours. "We've talked to our tech-support guys and have not gotten a response," he said. "I got a message from my ISP's tech support yesterday saying the problem was all fixed, but I still couldn't get onto the site. I wrote back to them saying, 'Fixed, my behind.' I'm getting ready to compose a nasty e-mail to our ISP right now. It's very frustrating how hard it is to get straight answers."
Kranser pointed out quite reasonably that if the outage had been the result of a malicious attack, he would have expected his electronic foes to screw with his data; however, all of his files appear to be intact. He was even able to send updates to the site while it was down, although he couldn't access it otherwise.
"This is the first time anything like this has happened," he said. "It was a real pain, but there doesn't seem to be any nefarious purpose behind it."
Disappointed, we put our thumbscrews back in the drawer and wrote it off as a byproduct of progress. But the whole incident did serve as a reminder of the peculiar vulnerability of virtual organizations. Real-world businesses can be robbed, flooded or set on fire, but at least they're still there. Online, one keystroke, and suddenly you're in limbo, nonexistent, and a bunch of Brazilians are stealing your traffic. Online brokerage ETrade, for example, has encountered this problem more than once; in February, a software glitch knocked out the site's trading for two days in a row, making it impossible for many investors to buy or sell stocks.
Kranser's site is up and running and once again getting up the county's nose about the airport. "I really don't know why this happened, but I want to get to the bottom of it because it's been a major irritant the past couple of days," he said. "We'll see if we even get an apology."
Now if only something could be done for those poor Brazilians. . . .
Do something for Wyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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