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Lost World, LAPD: Hacks or hoaxes?

Are Web site hacks real or are they hoaxes? Seems like that question's been cropping up all over the Net this week.

Hack or hoax? Seems like that question's been cropping up all over the Net this week.

First on Wednesday, someone hacked Lost World site, replacing the ferocious T-Rex image with that of a cute duck.

Or so that was the story that went across the Net in the usual exponentially expansive way. First the email flew, then came the news pieces at places like CNN and here at CNET's NEWS.COM.

Then on Thursday, another email theme was launched. The Los Angeles Police Department was hacked, the emails claimed. But some digging revealed that in fact, the page had never been hacked. It hadn't even been touched.

Chalk one up to the Net and it's unique ability to spread rumors quickly, efficiently, and often anonymously.

Today, the email machine cranked up again. Turns out a Web developer wrote a diatribe against the press for uncritically reporting the Lost World story.

Glen Lipka, a Web developer for Kokopelli Internet Consultants, wrote that the duck posted on the page in the wee hours Wednesday morning had all the hallmarks of a fraud. He accused Universal Pictures of mounting the publicity stunt and the press for gobbling it up.

No sooner had Lipka written the piece than another email campaign was launched. The new conclusion: the Lost World hack was in fact a publicity stunt--a hoax. Universal adamantly denied it; in fact, a spokesman said they have tracked the hack to a specific person, although he would not elaborate.

Lipka had sound reasoning to believe what he did. First, the hacked graphics were way too complex and professional-looking to convince him. As is the story with several well-known cases, hackers usually put up pornographic images or have political messages. Often, they combine the two. Lipka had never seen a hack quite as neat and clean and, well, G-rated.

That's why the LAPD hack was so convincing: it looked like your typical hacked page, complete with accusations of racism.

"You have to look at what hackers do on the Web," Lipka said in an interview. "This is completely in left field. The graphics were perfect. It's unheard of to think someone would really do this. Nobody would ever put a parody up. They would have put up some political agenda or some sexual agenda."

Then there was the question of motive. When hackers broke into the Central Intelligence Agency, for instance, they changed it to read the "Central Stupidity Agency" and posted images that would never pass CIA muster.

The Lost World hack seemed so benign. In fact, it was downright cute. It was a parody based on the site and was likely to offend nobody. "There is a motive" in that hack, Lipka claims.

Finally, he said, there was the issue of the dates. According to the files he pulled up, the graphics in the hacked pages actually were created before the graphics on the real page.

That means the spoof was created before the site was created, something that would be impossible to do if it came from outside, unless the dates were wrong. In which case, Lipka sighed, he can't really prove it. He can't definitively prove anything.

That's because it never happened, according to Alan Sutton, a spokesman for Universal. When told Universal was being accused of perpetrating a hoax, he bristled. "That's absolutely untrue. We categorically deny it. "It was a hack. Our security people traced it back to a service provider and an individual."

Sutton added that it made no sense for Universal to perpetrate its own hack. "If we were going to do this, why would we do it from three in the morning until eight in the morning, which is the time the hack was up? The whole thing just incenses me to think we would hack our own site to call attention to something called Duck World."

But, in the next breath, he noted: "Of all the sites they could have chosen on the Internet, they chose ours because it got them traffic."

Hack or hoax? We may never know for sure.