This article appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on Tuesday, July 12. INTERNET HACKERS BREACH SECURITY Hard-core porn stored on Livermore Lab's computers by Adam S. Bauman Los Angeles Times Dramatically illustrating the security problems posed by the rapid growth of the Internet computer network, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the nation's three nuclear weapons labs, confirmed Monday that hackers were using its computers to store and distribute hard-core pornography. Embarrassed officials at the lab in Livermore, which conducts a great deal of classified research and has highly sophisticated security procedures, said the incident was among the most serious breaches of computer security ever at the lab. The offending computer, which was shut down after a Los Angeles Times reporter investigating Internet hacking alerted lab officials, contained more than 1,000 pornographic images. It was believed to be the largest cache of illegal hard-core pornography ever found on a computer network. While hackers once devoted their efforts to disrupting computer systems at large organizations or stealing electronic information, they have now developed ways of seizing control of Internet-linked computers and using them to store and distribute pornography, stolen computer software, and other illicit information. The Internet, a "network of networks" originally designed to connect computers at universities and government research labs, has grown dramatically in size and technical sophistication in recent years. It is now used by many businesses and individual computer users and is often viewed as the prototype for the "information superhighway" of the future. Illegal traffic But the Internet has an underside, where "pirates" with pseudonyms like "Mr. Smut," "Acidflux," and "The Cowboy" traffic in illegal or illegally obtained electronic information. The structure of the Internet means that such pirates can carry out their crimes from almost anywhere in the world, and tracing them is nearly impossible. Late last week, the FBI confirmed it was investigating software piracy on the Internet. A Times reporter discovered a number of sites at prestigious institutions that were being used to distribute stolen software, including one in the office of the president of the University of California, Berkeley, and another at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Pirates also have their own "chat" lines, a series of channels within a service called the Internet Relay Chat. An elaborate pecking order determines who will be allowed to take part in these conversations -- newcomers can often wangle their way in if they have a particularly hot piece of software to offer. FBI notified Sandy Merola, deputy director of Information and Computing at the Berkeley lab, said the pirate site was shut down after the Times investigation revealed its existence. Merola said the Department of Energy, which oversees lab operations, and the FBI had been notified of the incident. At Lawrence Livermore, officials said Monday that they believed at least one lab employee was involved in the pornography ring, along with an undetermined number of outside collaborators. Chuck Cole, deputy associate director of computing at the lab, said that nearly 2,000 megabytes of unauthorized graphical images have been found in a Livermore computer, and he confirmed that they were pornographic. The employee has been placed on "investigatory leave" and his or her security badge was confiscated while an investigation is under way, the lab said. It was unclear whether the pornographic images were being sold or how many people had gained access to them. The pictures were sufficiently graphic that they probably would be considered obscene by the courts, and transmitting them over the Internet would be illegal. The mass amount of storage capacity used in the Livermore scheme shows how Internet hacking could be quite profitable. Seizing control of large and sophisticated computer systems at universities or government laboratories can save unscrupulous entrepreneurs large sums of money. There were indications that the person operating the pornography data base had become aware of possible scrutiny. On June 27, a message left in a file labelled READ ME!!! said, "It appears that news about this site has escaped. In the past two weeks, I have had 27 unauthorized hosts attempt to access my server. This does not give me a warm-fuzzy feeling. I would hate to have to shut this down, but I may have no choice." Espionage suggested One computer expert, who requested anonymity, said there might be more to this incident than meets the eye. The expert suggested that the hard-core pornography may be a cover for an ultra-sophisticated espionage program, in which a "sniffer" program combs through other Livermore computers, encodes the passwords and computer accounts it finds and then hides them within the pornographic images, perhaps to be downloaded later by foreign agents. But Cole said there was no possibility of a computer intruder's gaining access to classified data at Livermore. The Software Publishers' Association, a trade association representing major software manufacturers, has made software piracy on the Internet a major priority. Peter Beruk, SPA's litigation manager, said: "We are currently tracking over 1,600 pirate sites on the Internet in a joint investigation with the FBI. It is a very serious and costly program."
Last updated 94/11/04
© J.A.N. Lee, 1994