Calls Stolen Data Sensitive, Not Secret : U.S. Scientist Foiled ‘Hackers’ Spy Ring

Times Science Writer

Three computer “hackers” who were arrested in West Germany on “suspicion of espionage” after they allegedly broke into military and civilian computer systems in the United States were able to gain access to sensitive--but not secret--data, an American astronomer credited with breaking the case said Friday.

Authorities in Bonn announced Thursday that the three suspects had been working for the Soviet security service, the KGB, and had broken into at least 40 computer systems.

While they learned much that U.S. officials would have preferred that foreign intelligence agents not know, the hackers were not able to break into systems containing secret data, said Clifford Stoll, who was an astronomer at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory at the University of California when he first stumbled across one of the hackers three years ago.

“They didn’t get classified data, but they got lots of sensitive data,” said Stoll, now at Harvard University’s Center for Astrophysics.


Stoll said the hackers were able to tap into the U.S. Air Force Space Division in El Segundo and find out such things as the dates for future satellite launches. Those dates were not labeled secret, he said, but they were considered sensitive.

“It’s worrisome,” he said.

The Defense Department has declined comment on the entire case until a full assessment can be made.

Other computer experts also said the hackers probably were not able to get everything they were looking for.


“I would doubt that they got into anything classified,” said Hal Tipton, president of the nationwide Information Systems Security Assn. and chief of computer security for Rockwell International Corp. Although it will take days and possibly weeks for U.S. officials to determine the extent of the intrusions, the tentative reaction among security sources in Washington was about the same as Tipton’s.

“There is no panic at the CIA and the NSA (National Security Agency) over this case,” one intelligence source said.

Computer hacking--the unauthorized entry into a computer system or a network of computers--has become widespread in recent years. All that is needed is a personal computer, a telephone line, a fair amount of patience to track down passwords and a desire to read someone else’s material. That is true for any system that links several computers by telephone, as is the case with most educational or research computer networks.

Security System Different

However, the security system is quite different for computers that handle classified material. They can be made far more secure, for example, by simply not linking them by telephone.

“There is no dial access” to classified systems, Tipton said.

Thus anyone who wants to use such a system must physically go to the facility where the computers are kept and prove that he or she has the proper authorization. In many cases, as in top secret files, the data is encoded as an additional protection against unauthorized disclosure.

“It’s a lot harder than most people think,” Tipton said.


But the value of computers lies partly in their capacity to make much information readily available to many users, so there is a desire to put prodigious amounts of unclassified data into systems where others may tap in. And that paves the way for abuse.

Over the last three years, the West German hackers reportedly gained access to the U.S. Defense Department’s general databank, known as Optimus, plus computers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, various military bases and many other computer networks in the United States, Japan and Europe. So while the intruders may not have collected top secret material, they apparently had access to information about many current research projects.

According to news reports from Germany, the hackers “were paid with cash and drugs” by the KGB.

Arrests Seen as ‘Major Blow’

The West German government described the arrests as a “major blow” to the Soviet security agency. Prosecutors said five other persons were under investigation.

Tipton said he was surprised the suspects were arrested because another West German hacker was detained last year but had to be released because there is no law in West Germany against breaking into a computer system. The suspects arrested this week were accused of espionage, not hacking.

Alexander Prechtel, spokesman for the Federal Prosecutor’s Office in West Germany, said the three stand accused of “suspicion of espionage activities for an eastern European intelligence agency.”

The West German case actually began in August, 1986, when Stoll detected that someone had gained unauthorized entry to the computers at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. He decided to set a trap.


After observing the hacker for several days, it became obvious to Stoll that the intruder was trying to use the Berkeley computer as a gateway to Milnet, a vast computer network linking defense plants, university labs and military installations.

Sought Key Words

“He was searching for key words like nuclear, ICBM, SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative), biological warfare, NORAD,” Stoll said.

Stoll created a false military data bank and set up a phony computer network called “SDI Net.” The hacker spent so much time reading the fictitious data that Stoll was able to trace the call to Hanover, West Germany.

About three months later, Stoll got a letter from a man in Pittsburgh asking for information about the SDI Net. He turned the letter over to the FBI and the bureau found the man had connections to East European governments.

That led to the investigation that resulted in this week’s arrests.

Stoll, 38, said that by the time West German authorities had built their case, the hackers had already created a situation that could cause problems for years.

“They taught the KGB guys how to break into the systems,” he said in a telephone interview. “They gave them passwords, and they told them which (electronic) doors had been left open.”

In other words, they taught the KGB agents how to be effective hackers.

“That really offends me,” Stoll said.

Times staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this story.