By JOHN THORNE, Associated Press Writer
Morocco's most internationally famous criminal of late is not a
terrorist or serial killer, but a teenager with a knack for computers.
The conviction this week of a Moroccan science student for unleashing
the Zotob worm that ravaged U.S. computer networks last year could
even be cast as proof that this agriculture-dependent,
unemployment-plagued nation is making its mark on the digital world.
In August 2005, Zotob crashed computers across the United States,
including those of The Associated Press, The New York Times and other
media organizations; companies such as heavy-equipment maker
Caterpillar Inc.; and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Farid Essebar, then 18, was arrested soon afterward along with
accomplices in Morocco and Turkey in a sweep by U.S., Moroccan and
Turkish police. On Tuesday a court in Sale, near the capital, Rabat,
sentenced him to two years in prison and gave his friend Achraf
Bahloul one year.
While few Moroccans are willing to defend Essebar's flagrantly
criminal hacking feat, many see it as evidence that their country is
making the leap to computer literacy.
"There's a bit of pride that a local kid was good enough and had the
tools" to create Zotob, said Karl Stanzick, managing director of MTDS,
a Rabat-based high-speed Internet provider.
Moroccans' Internet use has exploded in the last two years, since
national telecommunications company Maroc Telecom went private and
opened telephone networks for DSL high-speed Internet. Now there are
an estimated 300,000 DSL connections in Morocco, Stanzick said.
Three years ago, a sluggish dial-up connection cost $500 a month,
Stanzick said, while today a broadband link roughly 30 times faster
costs just $50.
High-speed Internet has yet to reach much of Morocco's countryside,
where even telephones are still scarce. Morocco has just 2.35
computers for every 100 inhabitants compared to 76 in the United
States, according to the International Telecommunications Union.
But in urban centers like Rabat, the Internet is fast becoming a
Cybercafes dot the city, from stylish air-conditioned joints offering
food and drinks to cramped dens tucked into the old medina, where even
the poorest can, for a few cents, bathe for hours in the eerie blue
glow of the screen. Schools offering courses in programming and
computer use have sprouted.
"When I first opened in 1998, 90 percent of my customers were
government workers who didn't even have the Internet in their
offices," recounted Khalid Limane, the owner of Globalnet, a cybercafe
in the upscale neighborhood of Agdal.
Now, his customers are mostly students from nearby schools dropping in
to check e-mail or use Globalnet's printer, scanner or fax machine.
"But even most of them have Internet at home, too," he added.
Behind him, teenagers and 20-somethings surfed on computers in
handsome wooden booths. A few others sipped cafe au lait and fruit
juice at tables in Globalnet's tiled yard.
One of them, 25-year-old telemarketing manager Mohamed Ben Moumen,
comes to hang out every day. The cheap, fast Internet connection
installed in his nearby office makes his job possible, he said.
"It's a means of keeping in touch with clients in France and with the
call centers here," explained Ben Moumen, whose company sells French
life insurance to French customers, one of a growing number of
Moroccan call centers French companies are turning to for marketing.
But with access to cyberspace comes the inevitable cybercrime, said
Ron O'Brien, a security analyst with antivirus manufacturer Sophos who
helped combat the Zotob worm.
Since cybercrime can be lucrative, it is especially tempting in poor
countries like Morocco, where online thieves targeting rich Westerners
are often protected from prosecution by national borders and
underdeveloped -- or nonexistent -- cybercrime laws. The international
police work that quickly bagged the Zotob hackers was unusual.
Zotob infected computers so they could be accessed remotely by an
unauthorized user. Hackers sometimes use such techniques to steal
credit card numbers or passwords.
"If you have the will and the means to gain access to a computer,"
O'Brien said, "you can obtain hacking kits on the Internet that will
tell you how to create a virus."
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
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