Hacked off! Government, Firms Fight Computer Intruders

Article excerpt

EVERY DAY, hundreds of people in front of personal computers try to sneak into corporate and government computer networks. Sometimes they just look around, sometimes they destroy data and sometimes they steal personal and classified information.

In a case that began in 1992, the federal government indicted and charged five hackers in New York who were the main members of a group called the Masters of Deception. The young men were accused of breaking into some of the nation's most sensitive networks, including Tymnet, the huge data network that connects thousands of computers used by banks and the government. They also broke into computers that control every regional telephone company and AT & T.

Two weeks ago, law enforcement officials charged an Argentine, 21, with using the Internet to illegally break into computer networks at Department of Defense installations, the NASA, Los Alamos National Laboratory and several universities. The Justice Department is now seeking Julio Cesar Ardita, who accessed confidential research files on aircraft design, radar technology and satellite engineering. And Chris Schanot, 19, from High Ridge, was in court in St. Louis last week on charges of hacking. Schanot, who fled to Pennsylvania from St. Louis after graduating from Vianney High School last May, is accused in a five-count indictment of breaking into the computers of Southwestern Bell, Bell Communications Research, Sprint and SRI International, a research and development contractor with government contracts. His trial is set for June 10. As hackers try to get into government and corporate computers, government and corporations try just as hard to keep them out. This is the computer era's power struggle - the fight over control of information. Schanot, like other hackers, likely became addicted to the feeling of power that cracking into a private computer network brings, said St. Louis County Police Sgt. Thomas Lasater, who has been investigating computer crime for seven years. "Normally these young hackers do not use the computers for financial gain," Lasater said. "It's just a challenge for them to see what they can conquer." Lasater agrees with the FBI that Schanot is a computer genius capable of entering almost any computer system. But Lorrie Cranor, a Washington University graduate student who teaches a course on computers and society, argues that Schanot may just have taken advantage of available high-tech burglar tools. "There are a lot of hacker tools that are readily available on the Internet, and one need not be an advanced hacker to use them," said Cranor, who is studying engineering and policy, along with computer science. "There are probe programs that can be used to probe other systems. Someone who has access to these and an enormous amount of free time can just keep running these programs." And available on the Internet are at least 10 programs that generate calling-card and credit-card numbers, said Joe Seanor, a former Justice Department employee who now heads a company that investigates computer crimes. In addition, there are probably 10 to 20 programs available that are capable of discovering passwords that will give a person access to a private network, he said. …