The Teenager Who Hacked NASA Computers

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In the computer security context, a hacker is someone who seeks and exploits weaknesses in a computer system or computer network. Hackers may be motivated by a host of reasons, such as profit, protest, challenge, enjoyment, or to evaluate those weaknesses to assist in removing them (which is good thing). A while back we saw how two guys in their teens “hacked” Facebook, and recently it was announced that a kid that was not up to 11 found a vulnerability on Instagram and was awarded a sum of $10,000. Unlike this genius kid carting a $10k bounty, hacking can result in losing a ton of money and can have some emotional impacts. But sometimes hacking is so subtle that you don’t know if and when it’s happened. The height of hacking is when your name is on record for exploiting Pentagon or NASA’s servers, the protection of which is prominent.

It was in 1999 that a young hacker, Jonathan James, with the nickname of c0mrade, accomplished this exploit at the age of 15.

On June 29 and 30, 1999, this young hacker made a mess of NASA using a simple Pentium computer.

Jonathan James
Jonathan James in his bedroom in 2000, after he was was caught breaking into NASA and other government computer systems. James has a photo of astronaut Capt. Mike Coats who signed “To Jonathan – Dare to Dream!”. (Photo: Jared Lazarus/ Miami Herald) via WIRED

He gained access by breaking the password of a server belonging to the government agency located in Alabama. He was able to freely roam the network, for two days in June 1999 and downloading $1.7 million worth of NASA proprietary software that supports the space station’s environment, including temperature and humidity. He also got hold of the source code of the International Space Station. He also invaded a Pentagon weapons computer system to intercept 3,300 emails, steal passwords and cruise around like a high-rank employee.

NASA had to respond by shutting down the computers for 21 days to determine the extent of the attack at a cost of $41,000 in contractor labor and replaced equipment.

In August and October 1999, c0mrade entered the computer network run by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, whose mission is to reduce the threat from nuclear, biological, chemical, conventional and special weapons to the United States. By entering through a router in Dulles, and installing a back door for access, he intercepted DTRA e-mail, 19 usernames and passwords of employees, including 10 on military computers.

He told PBS’s Frontline,

The government didn’t take too many measures for security on most of their computers, They lack some serious computer security, and the hard part is learning it. I know Unix and C like the back of my hand, because I studied all these books, and I was on the computer for so long. But the hard part isn’t getting in. It’s learning to know what it is that you’re doing.

He became the first young hacker to be incarcerated for computer crimes, the Justice Department in Washington said in a summary. He will serve six months in a state detention facility. “Breaking into someone else’s property, whether it’s a robbery or a computer intrusion, is a serious crime,” said Attorney General Janet Reno. The prosecution “shows that we take computer intrusion seriously and are working with our law enforcement agencies to aggressively fight this problem”.”Chris Rouland, who monitors computer attacks for Internet Security Systems Inc. in Atlanta, said the unusual part of the case was that the boy was caught, not that he got where he did. The boy’s identity was withheld because he’s a juvenile.

The criminal case and plea bargain have been in the works for about six months, said a source familiar with the case. If prosecuted as an adult, he would have been charged with wiretapping and computer abuse violations. As part of his sentence, the boy must write letters of apology to the secretary of defense and the NASA administrator.

However, James was a minor so this allowed him to avoid prison. A few lawyers estimated that, had he been an adult at the time, he would have spent at least ten years in prison for stealing documents classified as “defense secrets”. Jonathan James, on the other hand, was satisfied with a bit of irony by saying

“The code itself sucked… it was not worth the $1.7 million they said”.

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