In December 1997 Ira Magaziner had just finished a speech to a university audience. He decided to snoop around campus before catching his return flight to the nation’s capital. The president’s former health care policy adviser — who had subsequently been asked to head up the administration’s study of Internet issues — knew that the campus was home to one of the world’s 13 “root servers,” the computers that store domain names for the Internet. The servers enable Internet computers worldwide to speak the same language, so that when a Web user types in www.nytimes.com, her computer translates the name into the numerical language of the Internet.
To Magaziner’s shock, he found his way to the server simply by asking directions from a student. The computer sat unguarded in an otherwise empty, unlocked room, even though tampering with it could at least temporarily disrupt the Internet for many users. Magaziner was dumbfounded. “I could have blown up a root server, and no one would know I did it,” he recalls.
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