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Profile: Tom Leighton
Tom Leighton was a participant or observer in the following events:
Akamai’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. [Source: Akamai]In order to protect the White House website against a predicted attack by the Code Red virus, Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism chief, employs high-tech firm Akamai, which is run by Daniel Lewin, who will be the first person killed in the 9/11 hijackings. [Clarke and Knake, 2010, pp. 112; Forbes, 4/8/2010; Forbes, 7/1/2010; Ha'aretz, 11/11/2011] Akamai was co-founded in 1998 by Lewin, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Tom Leighton, a professor of applied mathematics at MIT. Its technology enables the Internet to handle Web congestion, so content can be delivered quickly and efficiently. [Slate, 9/11/2015; Forbes, 3/25/2019] The Code Red worm was created to cause damage by conducting a “distributed denial of service” attack, which, according to Scientific American, “overwhelms a website by directing computers to deluge it with spurious connections.” [Scientific American, 10/28/2002] It is designed to attack the White House infrastructure on the Internet by bombarding the White House Web server with data, thereby shutting it down for hours or even days. [Register, 7/24/2001; Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal, 8/26/2001; MIT Technology Review, 10/1/2003; Forbes, 3/25/2019]
Help Is Needed to Stop an Attack on the White House Website - Clarke wants help from Akamai because he has learned that 300,000 computers infected with Code Red are about to attack the White House website. [Forbes, 4/8/2010] He therefore turns up at the company’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is the first time Akamai has dealt with him. “We did not know him, but he somehow knew us,” Leighton, who is Akamai’s chief scientist, will later remark. [Forbes, 3/25/2019] Lewin is presumably one of the people Clarke deals with during the visit since, as well as being the firm’s co-founder, as chief technology officer he “effectively ran the company,” according to Lior Netzer, one of his colleagues. [Ha'aretz, 11/11/2011] Clarke tells Akamai “that there was going to be a massive attack on the White House Internet infrastructure… and he believed that we could help him,” Leighton will recall. Akamai agrees to provide the White House with the assistance he requests. [Forbes, 3/25/2019]
Akamai Stops the Virus - The Code Red worm attacks the White House website with requests that threaten to overload its server on July 19. [CNET News, 7/27/2001; Guardian, 8/31/2001] But Akamai is able to stop the fraudulent data requests by redirecting them to Akamai servers around the world.
Akamai Has No Experience of Cybersecurity Work - It is unclear when Clarke approaches Akamai for help. The firm is enlisted by him “with just a few hours’ notice,” according to Forbes magazine. [Forbes, 7/1/2010] But Leighton will say he visits Akamai two weeks before the worm is set to attack the White House’s Internet infrastructure. It is also unclear why Clarke has chosen to go to Akamai for help since the company apparently has never previously done any cybersecurity work. Leighton will in fact say that the assistance it provides to the White House on this occasion “gave birth to our government and security business.” According to Leighton, the reason is that Clarke has “figured out that [Akamai] had a large edge network with a large number of servers close to where the users were and where the attacking bots were,” and he “felt that if the traffic was directed through us, that the network had enough capacity to filter out the attack and protect the core.” [Forbes, 3/25/2019] Ironically, Lewin will apparently be the first person killed in the 9/11 attacks. He will be a passenger on Flight 11, the first plane to be hijacked, and reportedly have his throat slashed when the hijackers are taking over (see (8:14 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Ha'aretz, 11/11/2011; Raskin, 2013, pp. 218; CNN, 9/11/2013; Tablet, 9/11/2013]
Tom Leighton. [Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology]Numerous government websites, which are a source of critical information, go offline, allegedly due in part to malicious attacks by computer hackers. [Akamai, 9/11/2015; Business Times, 9/24/2016] Many people seeking details about the terrorist attacks are turning to the Internet to find out what is happening, since it can quickly provide them with the information they want. However, numerous key websites, including government websites and news websites, go offline. [Washington Post, 9/11/2013; Akamai, 9/9/2014; Jewish Review of Books, 12/2014] The websites of the New York Times, CNN, and NBC News, for example, are unavailable between 9:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. [Network World, 9/17/2001] Other websites that could provide valuable information that are affected include the websites of the FBI, the Red Cross, and American Airlines. [Raskin, 2013, pp. 209-210; Jewish Review of Books, 12/2014]
'Bad Actors' Launch Attacks on Key Websites - There are two reasons for the websites going down, according to Tom Leighton, chief scientist at the high-tech firm Akamai. One is simply that the increase in traffic caused by large numbers of people turning to the Internet for information is overloading them. [Akamai, 9/9/2014; Business Times, 9/24/2016] The website of the Washington Post, for example, is receiving 10 times its usual number of page views. [Network World, 9/17/2001] The other reason is that “bad actors” are coming out and committing cyberattacks. [Forbes, 3/25/2019] “The crazies came out and… attacked key websites to make it… even more likely that they would go down,” Leighton will later recall. Due to these cyberattacks, he will say, “a lot of government websites went down.” [Akamai, 9/9/2014]
FBI Website Goes Down - Among others, the website of the FBI goes offline. This is due to an increase in traffic, which may have been caused by deliberate attacks. The FBI “suspected at least some of [the extra traffic] was malicious—opportunistic hackers launching denial of service attacks and causing other mischief,” the Washington Post will report. [Washington Post, 9/11/2013] (A “distributed denial of service” attack involves thousands of compromised computers being used to target a website or server at the same time, thereby causing it to overload and become unavailable. [Business Times, 9/24/2016] )
Attacks Make It Harder to Get Information Out - Whether the identities of those launching the suspected cyberattacks will subsequently be determined, and whether the cyberattacks are connected to the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, is unstated. Leighton will only comment that he is unaware whether the cyberattacks were coordinated. [Akamai, 9/9/2014] All the same, a consequence of them is that “it became even harder to get the news [about the terrorist attacks] out,” Leighton will note. [Forbes, 3/25/2019] In addition to the problem of important websites going offline, people in New York and Washington, DC, experience communication problems today due to difficulties making phone calls, particularly cell phone calls (see (After 8:55 a.m.) September 11, 2001) and (After 10:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [New York Times, 9/20/2001; SatNews, 10/19/2001; Verton, 2003, pp. 148-149]
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