When Ehud Tenenbaum was arrested on suspicion of hacking his way into Pentagon and other sensitive computer systems, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was openly admiring of the young Israeli, lauding his skills as "damn good."
Netanyahu added that the 18-year-old was "dangerous too." But the Israeli prime minister's praise made an instant celebrity of a young man suspected of leading the most serious attack on the Pentagon's computers and breaking into as many as 700 sites worldwide.
Netanyahu is among many Israelis who have reacted to the news of Tenenbaum's alleged exploits with a mixture of national pride and amused approbation. The teenager, known throughout Israel as the "Analyzer"--his Internet nickname--has received dozens of requests for media interviews and book and movie deals, along with several job offers.
Tenenbaum has even been featured in a full-page computer advertisement in Yediot Aharonot, Israel's largest newspaper. He gazes pensively at the reader next to the slogan "To go far, you need the best tools." In exchange for making the brazen ad for EIM, an Israeli computer supply firm, the alleged hacker received a powerful new computer to replace the one confiscated by Israeli police upon his arrest.
"He's become a folk hero," said Dror Feuer, editor of the Haaretz newspaper's weekly technology supplement. "People see him as the outlaw of our time, and they really like the fact that this little Israeli went up against the big guys--the Pentagon."
Illegality Pointed Out
But others are not amused, either by Tenenbaum's alleged activities or by Israel's image of him.
"These people are the cancer of the Internet," said William Zane, whose Santa Rosa, Calif.-based network service company, NetDex, was apparently used as a launch pad to attack hundreds of other computers. "They're nasty little people who have diminished the real flow of information and free speech on the Internet. What they've done is unethical and illegal, and for people like Netanyahu and others to make jokes about it is just terribly unfortunate."
The FBI sent agents to Israel last month to join in the questioning of the teenager, who has not been charged but remains under investigation, according to Israeli and U.S. officials. The FBI says Tenenbaum is believed to have coached two Cloverdale, Calif., teenagers in what Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre described as the "most organized and systematic attack" to date on Pentagon systems.
Hamre said the hackers did not gain access to the Pentagon's classified computer networks, which have extensive security. But during a three-week period in February, they entered unclassified networks, including databases for payroll and personnel information, Hamre said in a March 25 interview with the U.S. military newspaper European Stars and Stripes.
Hamre told the newspaper that the systematic attack, with its overseas link, was especially worrisome because it occurred just as the Clinton administration was preparing for a possible military assault on Iraq, raising concerns of a connection to foreign governments or even "cyber-terrorists."
Although the fear appears to have been unfounded in this case, Hamre said he was visiting Europe to consult key allies about the threat posed by such intrusions and to seek help in ensuring that shared North Atlantic Treaty Organization computer systems remain secure.
Investigators say Tenenbaum's targets also included NASA, several U.S. Air Force and Navy systems, many U.S. universities and federally funded research sites such as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In Israel, he reportedly tapped into computers belonging to President Ezer Weizman, the Israeli parliament and Palestinian extremist organizations. He later boasted to friends that he had destroyed the site belonging to the militant Islamic group Hamas.
He also is reported to have tried to infiltrate the Israeli army's classified files. If so, Tenenbaum is unlikely to find himself using his computer skills during his own mandatory military service, which began this month. Earlier, Tenenbaum's lawyer had suggested that the army might wish to take advantage of his client's talents to hack, perhaps, into Syrian intelligence systems.
Little Damage Done
In most instances, Tenenbaum and his partners, who are both minors, appear to have done relatively little damage to the computers and networks they entered, according to sources close to the investigation. For the most part, the hackers simply browsed the files without changing their content, often searching for passwords that would allow them to notch yet another unauthorized entry on their belts.
But even if the teenagers did not tamper with the information they found, the managers of several hacked systems said the break-ins forced them to either scrap every file that could have been compromised or painstakingly check them all for flaws.
"These cases are not benign," said Randall Ballew, technical manager of UC Berkeley's Museum Informatics project. Hackers broke into the university's network of seven computers dedicated to a National Science Foundation project that manages plant specimens for California herbariums. The intruders used the network mainly to search for passwords that would enable them to gain access to still more computers, Ballew said.
"Even if hackers just break into a system and don't really do anything, it does cause damage," he said. "The Israeli prime minister is completely wrong in this."
But Netanyahu is hardly alone.
At a disco in the city of Netanya recently, the crowd broke into raucous applause when a deejay announced that the "famous Analyzer" was on the dance floor. "We are proud of you," the deejay declared, according to an account in Yediot.
Many other Israelis have shrugged at the case, saying that hacking is little more than a game for bright kids who want to test their skills by trying to get into as many computers and networks as possible. Relatively few saw any real harm, at least in the absence of obvious theft.
Dalia Itzik, an Israeli legislator who heads the science and technology committee in parliament, has hailed Tenenbaum as a "genius" who should be persuaded to use his "huge amount of computer knowledge" to help the state. She said Tenenbaum should not be indicted.
She invited Tenenbaum to appear before her committee to teach lawmakers about computer hacking, but he was unable to make it; he was still under house arrest in his parents' home in a Tel Aviv suburb.
Amnon Zichroni, a prominent Tel Aviv attorney who is representing Tenenbaum, said that he expects police to recommend charges against his client when the investigation is completed but that prosecutors could decide against pursuing the case.
"Really, it's better when such systems are hacked by kids rather than spies," Zichroni said. "It's a game to many of these kids. In the past, we used to boast about all the girls we had. Nowadays, kids boast about their ability to hack into computer systems."
Tenenbaum could be charged under a 3-year-old Israeli computer crimes law, which carries penalties of three to five years for conviction for various offenses. But it is unlikely that he will face charges in the United States; Israel does not allow its citizens to be extradited.
The attorney said he hoped prosecutors will "take the right approach" with his client. "Instead of charging him, why not try to use such a boy and enjoy the benefits of having such a talented young gentleman in Israel?"
A Typical Teenager
By various accounts, Tenenbaum is a relatively typical teenager. In school, he excelled in math and science, earning high scores on his high school matriculation exam even though he is dyslexic.
He began playing with computers at age 6 and started surfing the Web at 15, eventually making contact with "Makaveli," now 16, and "Tooshort," 15, the Cloverdale kids who became his students. He met them in a multinational hacking group called "the Enforcers," which has said its main enterprise is trying to damage or shut down racist Internet sites and those catering to pedophiles.
In a lengthy interview with the Yediot daily just before he entered the army, Tenenbaum said he stumbled into the Pentagon's computers by accident, at least the first time. "I reached the place the site name of which ended with 'govt,' and I went in without knowing that this was the Pentagon," he said.
Still, he is proud to have done so. "As far as I'm concerned, the achievement is in the very breaking into the system. I didn't want to do more than that. . . . I had no intention to destroy or cause damage." Tenenbaum also said he sealed the security gaps he discovered at the Pentagon and elsewhere.
But in a previous conversation with AntiOnline, a computer security forum run by a student at the University of Pittsburgh, Tenenbaum showed a darker side, saying he "hated" big organizations and governments and had hacked into "lots" of classified servers. And he suggested "chaos" as a good alternative to government.
John Vranesevich, 19, who founded AntiOnline four years ago and conducted the interview, said the Analyzer had been a presence on the underground hacking scene for nearly three years, although no one knew his identity or nationality. Vranesevich said Makaveli also had been around for a couple of years but that he had not spoken to him until the Cloverdale teen called in early March to complain about the FBI's raid on his home.
In that conversation, Makaveli talked about the reasons for his hacking, according to an account on AntiOnline's Web site: "It's power, dude, you know, power." Several weeks before Tenenbaum's arrest, Makaveli also told Vranesevich about a hacker he described as his mentor, who lived outside the United States and was "so good, they'll never find him."
But despite Tenenbaum's hacking exploits and the hundreds of hours he apparently spent at the task, Vranesevich said breaking into many government and military networks was not terribly difficult, because of their relatively poor protection and because of software "hacking kits" that are available on the Internet.
Even the Pentagon, which holds a special attraction for hackers and is estimated to withstand 250,000 attempts at entering each year, has comparatively poor defenses, said Paul Strassmann, its former chief of information technology.
Perhaps so, but Israel seems unlikely to drop its image of the Analyzer as an extraordinarily skilled hacker. Still, there are a few disapproving voices amid the chorus of cheers.
Doron Shikmoni, a network and computer security expert, said the celebrated case has made his work harder by romanticizing the public image of those who break into computer systems.
"It's a real problem, this attitude of the public and the media toward hackers," Shikmoni said. Computer security "is much like any lock-and-key system," he added. "You don't only depend on the type of lock you have but on the idea that breaking into your home is considered illegal and will immediately involve police and legal action.
"This is not yet being done to the full extent in computer crime issues in Israel, and part of the reason is this lenient and tolerant public attitude," Shikmoni said. "It's considered like a Boy Scout game."
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington and special correspondents Batsheva Sobelman and Efrat Shvily in Jerusalem contributed to this report.