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Teen charged with hacking into Air Force system


(IDG) -- A 15-year-old Connecticut youth faces charges of hacking into a government computer system that tracks the positions of U.S. Air Force planes worldwide, according to government officials.

Officials said the air control data, considered confidential in peace time and secret in times of war, wasn't compromised and no one's safety was jeopardized.

The teen, whose name is being withheld because he is a juvenile, was 13 when he allegedly hacked into the secure connection between the Air Mobility Command system at Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Ill. and a U.S. Department of Transportation computer system at the Volpe Center in Cambridge, Mass. The hack occurred on March 28, 2000, officials said.

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The suspect faces criminal charges for the break-in from the Cambridge Juvenile Court, according to Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly, whose office is prosecuting the case. The office of U.S. Attorney Daniel Stern handled the initial investigation.

"The computer networks that were attacked here provide important services to our government and our Armed Forces; they are not playgrounds for teenagers to explore," Reilly said in statement.

An Air Force systems administrator discovered that someone had broken into the computer systems March 28, 2000, officials said. The Air Force and DOT investigators set up monitoring teams inside the Volpe Center and at Scott Air Force Base to trace any further intrusions.

They determined that on March 30 and March 31, 2000, an intruder entered the Volpe Center's system and used a "sniffer" program to secretly intercept all wire communications, officials said. The hacker also ran a program that destroyed the electronic data files that recorded his presence on the system. Total damage to the systems was about $66,000 officials said. Officials said the breach through which the teen gained access to the computers has been closed.

By April 11, 2000, Air Force investigators had traced the intrusions to the teenager's Connecticut home. DOT and other government agents then executed a search warrant at the teen's home, where they seized computers that were allegedly used to hack into the government systems, according to officials.

"Although the intruder in this instance was a juvenile, the damage to Air Force systems was significant," Air Force Special Agent C. Damon Hecker, said in the statement.

Air Force officials couldn't be reached for further comment.

Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, said the Air Forces systems were simply not secure.

"There are a handful of very bright [13]-year-olds out there who can do remarkable things, and there are not-so-bright [13]-year-olds who have access to software designed by others to [detect] and explore security vulnerabilities," Aftergood said.

Aftergood said that at any moment, someone is testing the security of government and nongovernment computer systems. The problem, he said, is that administrators pay attention to potential security vulnerabilities only after their systems have been hacked, not before.

"You only install a burglar alarm after your house has been broken into," he said.

The teen will be charged with one count of malicious destruction of property, a felony carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years; one count of illegally intercepting wire communications for operating a sniffer program on the Volpe Center computer, which carries a maximum sentence of five years; and four counts of unauthorized access to a computer system, each of which carries a maximum of 30 days.

However, according to Massachusetts Assistant District Attorney John Grossman, because the teen is being charged as a juvenile, he could face being incarcerated only until he is 21, and if he is found guilty, he is expected to receive a lesser punishment.

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