Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Zombie Computers

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Zombie Computers

Article excerpt


SOMETHING STRANGE started happening to the computers at Yahoo!, an Internet portal and search engine company, on Monday morning, Feb. 7, 2000. The huge complex of computers started slowing down. Instead of loading pages in 1.7 seconds, the computers were taking over 6 seconds to load web pages -- and 6 seconds is a long time in Internet Time.

From there things got worse. By 10:30 a.m. Pacific Time, almost half the users who tried to log on to Yahoo! were shut out -- getting error messages. Engineers discovered that a "huge tidal wave of data" was overwhelming the computers. Furthermore, this data, (meaningless requests, diagnostic messages, and bogus requests for information) was coming from at least 50 different computers. A denial-of-service (DoS) attack was in progress. (Levy & Stone, 2000.)

The Yahoo! engineers were able to redirect traffic to backup computers, and by mid-afternoon, the service was running normally. The DoS attack stopped about then also. But the story was not over.

The next day, Tuesday, Feb. 8, similar Denial of Service attacks temporarily slowed or crippled some of the Internet's bigname sites: eBay (an auction site), (the news site of the Cable News Network), (a store site offering stock publicly for the first time that day), and (the bookseller-turned-variety store).

On Wednesday, Feb. 9, the DoS attacks hit four other sites (, E-Trade, Datek, and Excite). Attorney General Janet Reno held a news conference and promised that the FBI would catch the culprits. Speculation abounded. Who might have orchestrated these high-profile attacks? What were their motives? One thing was sure -- the stocks of computer security companies went up.

Along with the speculation, a new metaphor appeared in the nation's press: zombie computers. The computers which had sent those thousands of meaningless requests for information to Yahoo! and others were described as zombies. They had been taken over by programs hidden somewhere in their memories by malicious hackers. At a certain time, a signal was sent, and the hidden programs took over the host computers, directing them to send large volumes of requests to the target sites. (Technically this was called a Distributed Denial of Service attack.) The computers had become zombies, mindlessly obeying the will of the faraway hackers. Sources identified three of the zombie computers as mainframes at UC Santa Barbara, UCLA, and USC.

Once again, science fiction had provided a metaphor to describe the real world of the Internet.

The term "zombie" comes from the Voodoo religion, where it refers to both a snake deity and a supernatural power which can reanimate a dead body. This led to the term's use in the West Indies to describe a "will-less and speech-less human," only capable of automatic movements and presumably raised from the dead by a malevolent spirit (Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary).

Zombies in this last sense started populating science fiction movies in the 1960s. The Night of the Living Dead began a series of "Dead" movies where the zombies killed and ate living people and sometimes triumphed at the end of the movie.

And so the zombie metaphor was quickly recognized when applied to the computers generating the DoS attacks. These computers were innocent. They had been taken over by an outside spirit (program). They had no will of their own. …

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