Does mob mentality hurt the Internet?

David Berlind, a columnist for ZDNet, writes about a personal DDoS attack that took down his cable modem connection for several hours. This was an attack perpetrated by an administrator of an online gaming server. The article doesn’t say whether the server was a commercial server or run by a private individual. I sure hope a commercial gaming service wouldn’t tolerate such behavior.

On what I think is a related topic, this Slashdot posting asks the question, “Broadband Access Leading to Internet Breakdown?” The argument is made that with more internet connections using higher bandwidth solutions, the infection rate of viruses and the delivery rate of spam also increases, which possibly explains why these problems seem to be on the rise.

On yet another related note, a somewhat disputed survey claims that 3/4 of the United States population has internet access. This access isn’t limited to the home. People were counted if they said they had access at home, work, school, or a library. Some people have access at all four locations. Do they get counted 4 times? 🙂

I thought it interesting that all these reports came out within a day or two of each other. I don’t think there’s a conspiracy afoot. I just think they were timely and they all point to a growing problem. Specifically, I think that behavior on the internet is becoming like a mob mentality. When mobs form, the old saw about a few bad apples spoiling the bunch rings true. People will do things in a group environment that they would never do on their own. I think that part of this is because people lose their individuality and identity in a group setting. This loss of identity releases inhibitions because they are not acting as an individual any longer.

You can see this behavior in small behaviors. Rush hour traffic, when it’s not hampered by accidents, travels at a faster speed than other times of the day. The loss of inidividual identity ties into this. People rationalize that they probably won’t get stopped by the police since everybody else is driving so fast. If you put those same people on the same highway, but with nobody else on the road, most of them will drive more slowly.

The mob mentality on the internet does not come from people being physically gathered together. But the internet does promote a loss of individuality and identity. Most internet activity is practically anonymous. Yes, as the RIAA has shown, people can be tracked down. It is not easy to track down rogues, and even when they can be tracked, it often doesn’ matter.

David Berlind’s DDoS attack came from an individual that he could track down. Yet he has little recourse for the damage that was done. The relative impunity of inflicting an attack surely encourages the perpetrators. It’s much like the kids who TP a house or turf somebody’s yard. They know they probably won’t be caught.

The Slashdot posting doesn’t mention it, but having higher bandwidth on a lot of computers makes it easier to execute a DDoS attach. A couple compromised computers that are attached to a T1 line can easily overwhelm a cable or DSL line.

The increased availability of computers, as surveyed by Harris Interactive, means that there are more potential computers that can be compromised. We had a court case in our area a few years ago that involved a number of young men who repeatedly forced girls into the basement of a home and would rape the girls. When the boys were caught, it was discovered that none of them lived at the house. The owner of the house said he had no idea what was going on down in his basement.

The owner’s story was hard to believe, but that same scenario is playing out on computers all across the internet. Rogue software has been installed in the “basement” of numerous computers without the knowledge of the computer owner. This software is used to carry out DDoS attacks, spread viruses, and send spam.

What can be done about it? Like most societal problems, I’m not sure that we’ll ever have a thorough solution. Will it hurt the value of the internet? It’s something that I might start worrying about.

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