Some Web surfers logging onto The Sun's Web site yesterday morning got a surprise -- instead of the day's headlines, they saw only a stark black-and- white Web page with a bizarre letter that began: "Kevin Freed By Cows."
What happened? SunSpot and a handful of other Web sites around the country fell victim to computer hackers conducting a campaign to free master hacker Kevin Mitnick.
While the incident caused no permanent damage -- SunSpot was available within two hours -- it did cause several bewildered readers to call in, asking what had happened.
Bob London of Intermedia Business Internet, the Beltsville-based Internet service provider whose computers host SunSpot, confirmed that its computers were penetrated about 9: 30 a.m. The security breech, he said, was repaired by 11: 07 a.m.
Two tabloids who use Intermedia -- the National Enquirer and the Star -- were also affected. Intermedia officials said a "limited number" of their 2,500 business customers were affected, including some non-media sites.
While it's unclear who is behind the break-in, the strange message contains references to Mitnick, a notorious figure in the hacker community once listed by the FBI as the world's most wanted computer criminal.
Since 1995, Mitnick has been jailed in Los Angeles, awaiting trial on computer-related fraud charges (he has two previous convictions for similar crimes). His trial had been scheduled to begin this month but was postponed until April, a move that has caused grumbling on Web sites dedicated to him.
Computer security experts say Mitnick's long imprisonment without a trial has inspired many attacks on Web site by young acolytes trying to bring attention to his cause. "We see 150 to 200 Web pages hacks a week that have to do with Kevin Mitnick," said John Vranesevich, founder of AntiOnline, an organization in Beaver, Pa., that aims to educate the public about hackers.
Most of these attacks involve small, mom-and-pop Web sites, Vranesevich said. Sometimes, however, hackers attempt to topple bigger game. Last September, for example, the New York Times was forced to close its Web site for nine hours after hackers who claimed to support Mitnick broke in and vandalized the paper's home page.
New York Times technology reporter John Markoff co-wrote a book about the FBI's search for Mitnick and his ultimate capture.
In yesterday's assault, the hackers did not physically alter anything on SunSpot's Web site, but instead hijacked Sun-bound surfers and transported them to a Web site in Sweden that contained the Mitnick missive.
They did so by penetrating Intermedia's domain name server, a computer that converts Web site names such as "www.sunspot.net" into the numeric codes the Internet uses to locate computers around the world. Hackers swapped the Swedish site's numeric address for the one that SunSpot uses.
"For SunSpot, this was not a major incident," said Lawrence Kessner, SunSpot's publisher. "We all try to be smarter than the guys who try to do this kind of thing. This was the first time in 2 1/2 years that this has happened, and we hope it will be the last."