Two Whizkids Illegally Accessed Restricted Computers, Using "Sniffer" Programs


Teen Hackers Plead Guilty To Stunning Pentagon Attacks
by Andrew Quinn

Source: Reuters

July 31, 1998

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Two California teenagers who mounted one of the most organized and systematic hacker attacks ever on U.S. military computers pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges of juvenile delinquency. U.S. Attorney Michael Yamaguchi said the two whizkids, who have not been officially identified, had admitted to a string of cyber-attacks in February which set alarm bells ringing over the state of U.S. computer security. ``The government takes very seriously any attacks on the computer systems which have become so much a part of the American infrastructure,’’ Yamaguchi said in a statement. ``We all rely heavily on these computers operating properly on a day-to-day basis, and any intrusion can lead to major disruption in important public and private services.’’ The California hackers were cornered on Feb. 25, when FBI agents descended on their homes in Cloverdale, about 75 miles north of San Francisco, searched their homes and seized computers, software and printers.

The search followed an intensive investigation by the FBI, the Defense Department and NASA, all of whom had grown concerned at a series of hacker assaults on sensitive military and institutional computers.

Although officials said no classified networks were penetrated, the ease with which the hackers accessed computers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the U.S. Air Force and other organizations clearly demonstrated how vulnerable the U.S. computer system had become. Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre told reporters the barrage was ``the most organized and systematic attack the Pentagon has seen to date.’’ The teenagers pleaded guilty to illegally accessing restricted computers, using ``sniffer’’ programs to intercept computer passwords, and reprogramming computers to allow complete access to all of its files.

They also pleaded guilty to inserting ``backdoor’’ programs in the computer to allow themselves to re-enter at will. Beginning with a local Internet service provider, which eventually raised the alarm over possible intrusion, the boys leapfrogged into other systems, including the University of California at Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, national laboratories, numerous military computers and two sites in Mexico. Yamaguchi said some of the computers hit by the hackers were ``Domain Name Servers’’ -- which are key to routing information across the Internet.

``Damage to these computers had the potential to disrupt military communications throughout the world,’’ Yamaguchi said. Each of the two teenagers could have been put into custody until his 21st birthday. But Yamaguchi said that under plea agreements, he would recommend that they be placed on probation -- and kept well away from any unsupervised use of computers. ``Each juvenile will only be able to access a remote computer system (i.e. use a modem to access a remote computer) under the supervision of a school teacher, a librarian, an employer, or other person approved by the probation office,’’ Yamaguchi said. Furthermore, the boys were both forbidden to possess a modem at home, and were barred from seeking employment in the computer field during their probation. They are expected to be formally sentenced in several months.

Yamaguchi said the incident highlighted how easy it had become for skilled individuals -- often children -- to access computer systems, no matter what kind of defenses are put up. ``Parents and teachers must realize that we have a responsibility to teach our children, not only how to use computers, but also how not to use them,’’ he said.

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