West German computer “hackers” repeatedly tricked the Soviet KGB into paying up to $164,000 for easily accessible and insignificant Western data bank information, a newspaper said Sunday.
“The hacker spies apparently exploited the ignorance of the Russians,” the Welt am Sonntag newspaper said. “The hackers laughed their heads off” after being paid by the KGB, it said.
The newspaper was quoting from notes by federal officials investigating the affair, in which eight hackers are suspected of infiltrating Western military, industrial and research computer systems on behalf of the KGB starting in 1986.
The home-computer hackers are suspected of electronically tapping into, among other systems, a U.S. Defense Department data bank, the Italian-French arms maker Thomson SA and the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in West Germany.
The KGB believed the hackers’ success in penetrating the periphery of the Pentagon data bank was “sensational.” They apparently did not know this was a relatively simple task for an amateur computer buff, the newspaper said.
Welt am Sonntag said the KGB repeatedly paid the hackers large sums of money for “largely open information” because the “Pentagon was a magic word” for Soviet officials.
Spokesmen for the federal prosecutor’s office and the Interior Ministry declined comment on the article.
The newspaper said the investigation to date showed that the hackers were generally unable to breach computer core systems where sensitive military or industrial secrets are stored.
West German government officials have termed the espionage case serious but warned against jumping to conclusions on its impact on Western security until inquiries are completed.
In Washington, the Defense Department says it has not yet determined what effect the spying has had on U.S. security.