A hacker broke into the computers of a major Spokane Internet provider Tuesday night, destroying files and shutting down the system for hours.
After resuming service early Wednesday, Internet On-Ramp operators were preparing tighter security, hoping the next virtual rock hurled at their equipment does no harm.
Many of the company’s 1,400 subscribers realized the system was down when they couldn’t reach electronic mailboxes, which are reached via phone modems or corporate direct links.
Users calling the company got a message explaining that technical difficulties had shut down the system.
Internet users pay between $20 and $35 per month for the ability to send and receive e-mail, visit Internet sites or download files from other computers.
“This was the worst (break-in) that ever happened to us,” said On-Ramp co-owner David Schmidt.
“It’s something every Internet provider is vulnerable to, just like no one is safe from having a rock thrown at your window. You just do the best you can to improve the security of your system.”
Tuesday’s unknown intruder also left a message taunting users. When subscribers tried to connect, a message on the computer screen said, “Log in as root password ‘Hacker,”’ said co-owner Sheryl Stover.
She said hackers fall into two categories: those breaking into computer networks out of curiosity or technical ingenuity; and those intent on damaging or plundering the system.
There are about a dozen Internet providers in Spokane, and all face regular attempts by hackers looking for security “holes,” said Schmidt, who started Internet On-Ramp two years ago.
Computer networks are designed so that individuals can reach them from nearly any spot on Earth. That’s their strength and weakness at the same time, Schmidt pointed out.
Schmidt said “someone logging in from Romania” recently attempted to break into his system.
Tuesday’s break-in, which started at 6:45 p.m., lasted less than a half-hour. The hacker quickly began destroying most of the system’s files after gaining access.
Shortly afterward, an On-Ramp employee saw evidence of the damage. He alerted Schmidt and others, who returned to the company’s downtown office to deal with the intrusion.
The damaged files did not include billing and personal user information, Stover said.
The ability to use an Internet browser to connect to the World Wide Web was restored within three hours. Other types of Internet access - primarily e-mail - were not restored until 5 a.m. Wednesday.
Throughout Wednesday, Schmidt and co-owner Bruce Jorgens kept other portions of the firm’s computer off-limits from outside access. That was done to reduce the risk of a similar attack.
The company’s computer technicians also were collecting data that might help police trace the culprit.