By JOHN MARKOFF and LOWELL BERGMAN
SAN FRANCISCO, May 9 - The incident seemed alarming enough: a breach
of a Cisco Systems network in which an intruder seized programming
instructions for many of the computers that control the flow of the
Now federal officials and computer security investigators have
acknowledged that the Cisco break-in last year was only part of a more
extensive operation -- involving a single intruder or a small band,
apparently based in Europe -- in which thousands of computer systems
were similarly penetrated.
Investigators in the United States and Europe say they have spent
almost a year pursuing the case involving attacks on computer systems
serving the American military, NASA and research laboratories.
The break-ins exploited security holes on those systems that the
authorities say have now been plugged, and beyond the Cisco theft, it
is not clear how much data was taken or destroyed. Still, the case
illustrates the ease with which Internet-connected computers -- even
those of sophisticated corporate and government networks -- can be
penetrated and also the difficulty in tracing those responsible.
Government investigators and other computer experts sometimes watched
helplessly while monitoring the activity, unable to secure some
systems as quickly as others were found compromised.
The case remains under investigation. But attention is focused on a
16-year-old in Uppsala, Sweden, who was charged in March with breaking
into university computers in his hometown. Investigators in the
American break-ins ultimately traced the intrusions back to the
Uppsala university network.
The F.B.I. and the Swedish police said they were working together on
the case, and one F.B.I. official said efforts in Britain and other
countries were aimed at identifying accomplices. "As a result of
recent actions" by law enforcement, an F.B.I. statement said, "the
criminal activity appears to have stopped."
The Swedish authorities are examining computer equipment confiscated
from the teenager, who was released to his parents' care. The matter
is being treated as a juvenile case.
Investigators who described the break-ins did so on condition that
they not be identified, saying that their continuing efforts could be
jeopardized if their names, or in some cases their organizations, were
Computer experts said the break-ins did not represent a fundamentally
new kind of attack. Rather, they said, the primary intruder was
particularly clever in the way he organized a system for automating
the theft of computer log-ins and passwords, conducting attacks
through a complicated maze of computers connected to the Internet in
as many as seven countries.
The intrusions were first publicly reported in April 2004 when several
of the nation's supercomputer laboratories acknowledged break-ins into
computers connected to the TeraGrid, a high-speed data network serving
those labs, which conduct unclassified research into a range of
The theft of the Cisco software was discovered last May when a small
team of security specialists at the supercomputer laboratories, trying
to investigate the intrusions there, watched electronically as
passwords to Cisco's computers were compromised.
After discovering the passwords' theft, the security officials
notified Cisco officials of the potential threat. But the company's
software was taken almost immediately, before the company could
Shortly after being stolen last May, a portion of the Cisco
programming instructions appeared on a Russian Web site. With such
information, sophisticated intruders would potentially be able to
compromise security on router computers of Cisco customers running the
There is no evidence that such use has occurred. "Cisco believes that
the improper publication of this information does not create increased
risk to customers' networks," the company said last week.
The crucial element in the password thefts that provided access at
Cisco and elsewhere was the intruder's use of a corrupted version of a
standard software program, SSH. The program is used in many computer
research centers for a variety of tasks, ranging from administration
of remote computers to data transfer over the Internet.
The intruder probed computers for vulnerabilities that allowed the
installation of the corrupted program, known as a Trojan horse, in
place of the legitimate program.
In many cases the corrupted program is distributed from a single
computer and shared by tens or hundreds of users at a computing site,
effectively making it possible for someone unleashing it to reel in
large numbers of log-ins and passwords as they are entered.
Once passwords to the remote systems were obtained, an intruder could
log in and use a variety of software "tool kits" to upgrade his
privileges -- known as gaining root access. That makes it possible to
steal information and steal more passwords.
The operation took advantage of the vulnerability of
Internet-connected computers whose security software had not been
brought up to date.
In the Cisco case, the passwords to Cisco computers were sent from a
compromised computer by a legitimate user unaware of the Trojan
horse. The intruder captured the passwords and then used them to enter
Cisco's computers and steal the programming instructions, according to
the security investigators.
A security expert involved in the investigation speculated that the
Cisco programming instructions were stolen as part of an effort to
establish the intruder's credibility in online chat rooms he
Last May, the security investigators were able to install surveillance
software on the University of Minnesota computer network when they
discovered that an intruder was using it as a staging base for
hundreds of Internet attacks. During a two-day period they watched as
the intruder tried to break into more than 100 locations on the
Internet and was successful in gaining root access to more than 50.
When possible, they alerted organizations that were victims of
attacks, which would then shut out the intruder and patch their
As the attacks were first noted in April 2004, a researcher at the
University of California, Berkeley, found that her own computer had
been invaded. The researcher, Wren Montgomery, began to receive
taunting e-mail messages from someone going by the name Stakkato -- now
believed by the authorities to have been the primary intruder -- who
also boasted of breaking in to computers at military installations.
"Patuxent River totally closed their networks," he wrote in a message
sent that month, referring to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in
Maryland. "They freaked out when I said I stole F-18 blueprints."
A Navy spokesman at Patuxent River, James Darcy, said Monday said that
"if there was some sort of attempted breach on those addresses, it was
not significant enough of an action to have generated a report."
Monte Marlin, a spokeswoman for the White Sands Missile Range in New
Mexico, whose computers Stakkato also claimed to have breached,
confirmed Monday that there had been "unauthorized access" but said,
"The only information obtained was weather forecast information."
The messages also claimed an intrusion into seven computers serving
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. A computer
security expert investigating the case confirmed that computers at
several NASA sites, including the propulsion laboratory, had been
breached. A spokesman said the laboratory did not comment on computer
Ms. Montgomery, a graduate student in geophysics, said that in a fit
of anger, Stakkato had erased her computer file directory and had
destroyed a year and a half of her e-mail stored on a university
She guessed that she might have provoked him by referring to him as a
"quaint hacker" in a communication with system administrators, which
"It was inconvenient," she said of the loss of her e-mail, "and it's
the thing that seems to happen when you have malicious teenage hackers
running around with no sense of ethics."
Walter Gibbs, in Oslo, and Heather Timmons, in London, contributed
reporting for this article.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: Would you believe I actually get
messages here from readers who try and tell me "there is no mutual
agreement on the net as to what consititutes 'malicious behavior'
on the net". My God, how blind can they be? If this story from the
NY Times over the weekend is not an example of maliciousness
personified, then I don't know what is. Maybe among _their_ friends
there is no consensus, but that is their fault, not mine. PAT]