TUCoPS :: General Information :: satcaper.txt

The Satellite Caper

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[      The Great Satellite Caper      ]
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[              Typed by:              ]
[            Silent Rebel             ]
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[           ( 40 columns )            ]
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Taken from: Time magazine
            July 29, 1985
       The Great Satellite Caper
Hackers' arrests point up the growing
    problem of system security
  It started innocuously enough: a 
credit card customer in Connecticut 
opened his monthly statement and 
noticed a charge for a piece of 
electronic equipment that he had never
purchased. By last week that apparent
billing error had blossomed into a
full-fledged hacker scandal and led to
the arrest of seven New Jersey
teenagers who were charged with 
conspiracy and using their home 
computers and telephone hookups to
commit computer theft.
  According to police, who confiscated
$30,000 worth of computer equipment
and hundreds of floppy disks, the
youths had exchanged stolen credit card
numbers, bypassed long-distance 
telephone fees, traded supposedly 
secret phone numbers (including those 
of top Pentagon officials) and 
published instructions on how to 
construct a letter bomb. But most 
remarkable of all, the first reports
said, the youngsters had even managed
to shift the orbit of one or more
communication satellites. That feat,
the New York Post decided, was worth
a front-page headline: WHIZ KIDS ZAP
  It was the latest version of the hit
movie WarGames, in which an ingenious
teenager penetrates a sensitive 
military computer system and nearly 
sets of World War III. Two years ago, 
for instance, the story was re-enacted
by the so-called 414 Gang, a group
of Milwaukee-area youths who used
their machines to break into dozens
of computers across the U.S.
  The New Jersey episode assumed heroic
proportions when Middlesex County
Prosecutor Alan Rockoff reported that
the youths, in addition to carrying
on other mischief, had been "changing
the position of satellites up in the
blue heavens." That achievement, if
true, could have disrupted telephone 
and telex communications on two 
continents. Officials from AT&T and
Comsat hastily denied that anything of
the sort had taken place. In fact, the
computers that control the movement
of their satellites cannot be reached
by public telephone lines. By weeks
end the prosecutor's office was quietly
backing away from its most startling
assertion, but to most Americans, the
satellite caper remained real, a 
dramatic reminder that for a bright
youngster steeped in the secret arts
of the computer age, anything is
possible. Says Steven Levy, author
of Hackers: "It's an immensely 
seductive myth, that a kid with a 
little computer can bring a powerful
institution to its knees."
  Last spring postal authorities traced
the Connecticut credit card purchase 
and a string of other fraudulent
transactions to a post-office box in
South Plainfield, N.J. Someone was
using the box to take delivery of 
stereo and radar-detection
equipment ordered through a 
computerized mail-order catalog. The
trail led to a young New Jersey 
enthusiast who used the alias "New
Jersey Hack Sack" and communicated 
regularly with other computer owners
over a loosely organized network of
electronic bulletin boards. A computer
search of the contents of those boards
by Detective George Green and Patroman
Michael Grennier, who is something of
a hacker himself, yielded a flood of
gossip,advice,tall tales, and hard
information including excerpts from an
AT&T satellite manual, dozens of secret
telephone numbers and lists of stolen
credit card numbers.
  The odd mix was not unique to the 
suspect bulletin boards. Explains Donn
Parker, a computer crime expert at
SRI International in Menlo Park,Calif.:
"Hacking is a meritocracy. You rise in
the culture depending on the 
information you can supply to other
hackers. It's like trading bubble gum
  Some of the information posted
by the New Jersey hackers may have been
gleaned by cracking supposedly secure
systems. Other data, like the access
numbers of remote computers, were 
probably gathered automatically by 
so-called demon dialers, programs that
search the phone system for on-line
computers by dialing, in sequence, 
every phone number within an area code.
"In some cases it takes a great deal
of skill and knowledge," says Parker.
"In others it's as simple as dialing
into a bulletin board and finding the
passwords that other kids have left."
And sometimes it is even simpler than
that. Two of the New Jersey youths
admitted that at least one of the 
crYVcard numbers they used had come
not from a computer but from a slip
of carbon paper retrieved from a trash
  No matter how mudane, the actions of
the New Jersey hackers have again
focused national attention on a real
and growing problem: how to safeguard
the information that is stored inside
computers. Americans now carry more 
more than 600 million credit cards, 
many of them allowing at least partial
access to a computerized banking system
that moves more than $400 billion every
day. Corporate data banks hold consumer
records and business plans worth untold
billions more.
  Alerted to the threat by earlier
break-ins, corporations and government
agencies have been moving to shore up
their systems. Many have issued
multiple layers of password protection,
imposing strict discipline on the 
secrecy of passwords and requiring 
users to change theirs frequently. 
Others have installed scrambling 
devices that encode sensitive data 
before they are sent,over the wires. 
Audit trails make crime detection
easier by keeping a permanent record of
who did what within a system. Dial-back
services help keep out unauthorized 
users by recording each caller's ID 
number, disconnecting the call and then
redialing only that telephone number
authorized by the holder of the ID.
  All told, U.S. business spent 
$600 million last year on security 
equipment and software. By 1993,
according to Datapro Research, security
expenditures could exceed $2 billion
annually. In addition to the cost,these
measures tend to make the systems 
harder to use, or less "friendly," in
the jargon of the trade. But computer
operators who like to keep their
systems casual may be courting trouble.
Says SRI's Parker: "These are 
reasonable, cost-effective steps that
managers who don't use them pretty much
deserve what they get."
                -By Phillip Elmer-DeWitt
Reported by Marcia Gauger/New York and 
Stephen Koepp/Los Angeles
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[This was a production of Silent Rebel]
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