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ISP attacked after finding child porn

The manager of a small Internet access provider says vandals shut down the service after she reported a child porn site.

The manager of a small Internet access provider says vandals shut down her site in retaliation after she reported a child pornography site to law enforcement authorities.

Marrya VandeVen, general manager of ISP Stockton Community Wide Web in California, said she came across the pornographic site while surfing March 11. The site, which she had traced to New Mexico, was not hosted by her ISP.

"As a mommy, I got really upset," VandeVen said today in an interview with CNET's NEWS.COM. "I've been working with other parents and groups on ways to keep our children safe. When I came across this site, I was really upset--not as the general manager of an ISP, but as a parent. How could someone convince a child to do that? This wasn't a young-looking 20-year-old. This was a prepubescent child pornography site."

A spokesperson for Internet Ventures, the company that operates the Stockton Community Wide Web, confirmed that the ISP's system was brought down but declined to give further details. The incident offers a rare glimpse into the netherworld of child pornography on the Internet, an issue that continues to be the source of legal wrangling.

VandeVen, who has a 7-year-old son, says she brought up her discovery on a mailing list that discusses unsolicited commercial email. She asked the list's members what to do about the information she had been able to gather about the site's origin and owner.

"I got a lot of criticism. People told me to mind my own business and let it drop," she said, noting that some warned her of the threat of retaliation if she reported it to law enforcement. Still, she added, "I never thought my peers would tell me not to do what was right."

However, Doug Lim, another list member, said, "Since the list's purpose is to defend against and work to prevent spam, and the fact that Ms. VandeVen did not actually receive spam from or promoting the [pirated software]/child porno site, a few people felt that her posts were off-topic, but most responses were helpful."

Lim said that because the list is designed to combat spam, often spammers "lurk" on it to learn what is being done to fight their practices.

"If you'll grant the assumption that those who send [junk email] are sorely lacking in ethics, certainly it's not hard to imagine that some of these spammers also traffic in pirated software and/or child pornography," Lim said in an email message. "Perhaps that is where the threats and harsh criticism and suggestions to 'mind her own business' came from."

VandeVen said she went on to report the information to the Customs Service and the FBI via email Thursday, March 12.

On Sunday, March 15, "I got a call at home from an employee at about 7 p.m., telling me the server was locked up. That happens every once in a while," she said.

When the employee rebooted the system, however, "nothing came back up," VandeVen said. "It deleted everything mounted on the system. [The hackers] were good--they got the backup to launch, and it wiped itself clean."

She explained that the hack was perpetrated using a Unix command to remove the root files, the core operating system files. "We had to rewrite everything from scratch," she said, noting that some information was saved on an old, "retired" hard drive, which the ISP used in the interim. "We had to re-create an ISP from a blank computer."

By 3 a.m. Monday customers could connect to the Internet and surf, VandeVen said, but they could neither retrieve the ISP's home page or their own pages nor check or send email. She said most customers were unable to retrieve email until Tuesday; others were held up until Thursday.

"Customers were really ticked off at first because they couldn't get their mail," she said. "But once we explained what happened, they were really great about it."

Since the ISP has been repaired, VandeVen said she is still feeling the effects. "I've gotten threatening emails from as far away as Australia," she said. "They feel I've encroached on one of their own. But if I have to be hated by any group, this one I don't mind so much."