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May 23, 1996

Report Warns of Security Threats Posed by Computer Hackers


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  • Lawrence Korb, National Security Analyst

    By PHILIP SHENON

    WASHINGTON -- Government investigators warned Wednesday that computer hackers cruising the Internet posed a serious and growing threat to national security, with the Pentagon suffering as many as 250,000 "attacks" on its computers last year.

    The investigators, from the General Accounting Office, offered scenarios in which terrorists or enemy governments might break into Defense Department computer networks and shut them down, cutting off communications between military commanders in the middle of a war.

    "There will become an increasingly attractive way for terrorists or adversaries to wage attacks," the investigators said in a report prepared for two congressional committees. "The potential for catastrophic damage is great."

    The Pentagon did not dispute the findings of the study, although Defense Department officials said they knew of no instance in which hackers had obtained secret information or gained access to computer networks that control the firing of weapons. "We are certainly well aware that people are breaking in or trying to hack into our systems," said Susan Hansen, a department spokeswoman.

    While the Pentagon is developing encryption devices that show promise in defeating computer hackers, the accounting office, which is the investigative arm of Congress, warned that none of the proposed technical solutions was foolproof, and that the military's current security program was "dated, inconsistent and incomplete."

    The explosion in the use of the Internet and the increasing power and sophistication of small desktop computers has compounded the Pentagon's problems, creating a worldwide army of hackers able to break into all but the most secure computer networks.

    The report cited Defense Department estimates that the number of unauthorized efforts to enter its computer systems -- "attacks," in the parlance of cyberspace -- was doubling every year and may have reached 250,000 in 1995, most of them made through the Internet.

    Pentagon figures suggest that in about 65 percent of those efforts, hackers were able to gain entry to a computer network.

    The investigators provided details on several recent attacks on the Pentagon's computers, including a 1994 incident in which two computer hackers were able to gain "complete access to all of the information" on the computer systems of the Rome Air Development Center, the Air Force laboratory in Rome, N.Y., where the Defense Department carries out some of its most important research on weapons systems.

    The report said the hackers rummaged through the computer networks for several days and stole information on the methods used by Air Force commanders to relay secret intelligence and targeting information during wartime.

    Working through the Internet and a variety of phone switches in South America, the hackers also used the laboratory's computers as a "launching platform to attack other military, government, commercial and academic systems worldwide," including the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., the report said.

    One of the hackers, a Briton whose code name was "Datastream Cowboy," was later arrested in England. The authorities say they do not know the nationality of the other hacker, whose code name is "Kuji" and who was never apprehended.

    "There may have been some national security risks associated with the Rome incident," the report said. "Air Force officials told us that at least one of the hackers may have been working for a foreign country interested in obtaining military research data or information on areas in which the Air Force was conducting advanced research." The foreign country was not identified in the report.

    In separate incidents between April 1990 and May 1991, the report said, hackers from the Netherlands broke into computer networks at 34 Defense Department sites and browsed the electronic-mail systems of several department officials, calling up all messages that contained the key words "nuclear," "weapons" or "missile."

    The accounting office investigator who oversaw the report, Jack L. Brock Jr., said in testimony Wednesday before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that more than 120 nations are reported to be developing "information warfare techniques" that could "allow our enemies to seize control of public networks which Defense relies upon for communications."

    "Countries today do not have to be military superpowers with large standing armies, fleets of battleships or squadrons of fighters to gain a competitive edge," he said. "Instead, all they really need to steal sensitive data or shut down military computers is a $2,000 computer and modem and a connection to the Internet."

    The investigators said the Pentagon had made itself vulnerable to attack by making itself so dependent on computers and the Internet, a system that its own researchers created in the 1970s.

    "Defense's computer systems are particularly susceptible to attack through connections on the Internet, which Defense uses to enhance communication and information sharing," the report said, noting that an estimated 40 million people worldwide are Internet users. "In turning to the Internet, Defense has increased its own exposure to attacks."

    The Pentagon uses the Internet to distribute electronic mail and other information. During the war in the Persian Gulf, the Defense Department used the Internet to communicate with allied armies and gather and distribute intelligence information.


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