Computer Hacking:

A Threat to Society

John Kinne - March 13, 1989

Computers are the keys to unlocking the doors of the future. More and more everyday, we depend on computers. Computers control our lives and the lives of people around us. But, as with all new technology, comes crime. Computer hackers were once viewed as kids, just having fun. But everyday, these mischievous misfits cause even more damage. Computer hacking is a damaging and dangerous crime, which should be taken very seriously.

Hacking is a general term, which includes all types of computer crime. The most widespread form of hacking is pirating, which involves the removal of copy protection from copy written software. These cracked ‘warez’, as they are called, are then spread across the country. Pirating costs software companies millions of dollars every year. The second most widespread computer crime is phreaking. Phreaking consists of making long-distance phone calls free of charge. This is accomplished by using a blue-box, or MCI codes. A blue-box tricks the operator into thinking you have hung up, then the box is used to emulate operator tones. MCI codes are hacked using a program that will repeatedly dial, using a modem, a local long distance service’s dial-up. The program randomly tries 5 or 6 digit codes until it finds one that works. The hacker can then use this code to make all the long distance calls he wants. Then comes hacking. A true hacker is a person who uses codes, illegally, to access computers that he isn’t supposed to access. These codes are obtained by putting a tap on the computer’s phone-line, or by randomly trying codes that fit an algorithm for the particular security program. These are the hackers that are the most damaging and dangerous.

The ages and types of people who hack vary greatly. Hackers include businessmen, bankers, lawyers, and 13 year-old school kids. Thomas Crandall, a Syracuse boy recently arrested for hacking, is only 16. He is accused of destroying attendance and discipline records at Central Technical and Vocational Center. Another hacker, Kevin David Mitnick, was under police investigation at the age of 13. Mitnick is said to be so dangerous that "He must never be allowed to even use a telephone without supervision." It’s a wonder why people like Mitnick hack. A person with his skills with computers could get a job anywhere he wanted. Supposedly, Mitnick was so good that "He could pick apart almost any computer system in the United States," and that there are "probably only a handful of computer specialists with his capabilities." A friend of Mitnick’s said that he was "a big fat slob of a guy that never did anything but eat Fat Burgers, drink Slurpees, and work on computers." It seems that Mitnick couldn’t get through a day without breaking into a computer somewhere.

With traits like these, it’s no wonder that society has varied viewpoints of hackers. Some people view hackers as the Robin Hoods of today’s society. Others view hackers as the worst criminals of any kind. The media represents the hacker as, "A cult hero who steals from the corporate fortress." Other people view hackers as adolescent and pre-adolescent vandals that the rest of society breeds and nurtures. It’s no wonder that society feels this way about hackers. Crandall, when confronted by one of his teachers, denied the charge and said, "Just try to catch me." Jim Black, a computer crime specialist with the Police Department refers to Mitnick as, "a threat to society, someone who uses computers to act out personal vendettas against people." It seems strange that society should frown upon a bunch of kids, ‘just having fun.’

As strange as it may seem, some hackers aren’t into it simply for the fun. Hackers have many other reasons for doing what they do. Stormbringer, a hacker from the cracking group known as Mayhem, has other reasons for hacking. "The reason we hack is because of the outrageous prices charged for software, phone services, and other things we need." This makes it seem that the software companies and other businesses are the real crooks. Stormbringer also adds that many times the software that they crack comes from sources within the company. This would mean that there are even hackers inside the companies that fall victim to hackers. One source stated that unlike other criminals, computer crooks do it mainly for pleasure. One of Mitnick’s friends said that, "Our favorite was the national Security Agency because it was supposed to be so confidential, it was like a big playground once you got in it. If there were better security measures, perhaps hackers would not be able to access such high security computers so readily.

It is perhaps the ease of hacking which makes it possible for so many inexperienced computer users to access so many high-security computers. Management of many businesses seems to place more importance on making a system operational, than making the system impenetrable. When a business falls victim to a hacker they would rather take their lumps, than to have their lack of security become publicly known.

In one instance, an employer found that one of his employees was embezzling funds with his terminal. This man knew that if it became known that there was no security, his employer would lose business. This employee then acted on this and demanded a letter of recommendation to another company. His employer complied with this demand and the employee left. At his new place of employment, this man once again began embezzling funds. Once again he was caught, and once again he demanded a letter of recommendation. His new employer was prepared to meet this demand, until the employee got cocky. The employee tried to sue his boss for damages. Only then, did the employer prosecute. Cases such as these clearly show how easy it is for a hacker to get away with it.

There are many other examples of just how weak security systems are. One system at Griffiss Air Force Base took 10 programmers a year to program. To test the system, three experts, who had no part in programming the system, were to try and break in. Armed with a home computer and a modem, they succeeded from a basement. Within 3 hours they broke into the system, rewrote parts of the program, and made it so that they could log-on at anytime, with unlimited access. Lawrence G. Page, a computer science instructor at the center that Crandall broke into said that, "Obtaining the knowledge to break into a computer system is not difficult." It is agreed that there are many, many more hackers out there, than actually get caught. Even though advanced methods of breaking into computers are out there, so far they haven’t been necessary. If hackers are to be caught, many new laws, and methods to catch hackers need to come about.

Some people argue that hacking is the same as any other crime. "If the burglar should knock over a candle and set the house afire, he can’t get off by claiming it was an accident." Another good example of this is that, "If a man takes money from a bank and doesn’t use a gun, he’ll get five years," but if, "someone steals $1.5 million with a computer, which is the equivalent of robbing a bank once a day for 3 years, he’ll only get 20 months." Computer crime, to those who engage in it, is not like stealing a purse from an old lady, it is a theft of a nice, clean quality. A justice department source says, "The issue is much like deciding what to do with a child who burned down a building when he was only playing with matches. The Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice says that:

While there may be great temptation on the part of some computer-users and law enforcement officials to dismiss this brand of computer crime as science fiction, "to do so would be a serious mistake," since, "it is a reality today and in all probability will constitute the majority of computer crime in the future.

Law enforcement agencies agree that a message needs to be sent to all hackers, that their type of fun, which uses peoples lives and livelihoods as game pieces, will not be tolerated.

Even with such a dangerous crime as hacking, sentences against hackers are extremely light. One example of this is that of Jerry Schneider. After using a computer to steal over $1 million worth of phone-equipment, using a computer and hacker credit card numbers, he was sentenced to 60 days in jail. He was released after only a month. Stephen Hattner, after embezzling $1.5 million only spent 15 months in jail. Robert T. Morris, whose worm shut down 6,000 computers only faces 10 years if convicted on a felony charge. Hoping to get convicted of a misdemeanor, he would get a year at most. Crandall accused of doing $25,000 in damage, faces up to four years in state prison. Right now, the record sentence for any computer crime is 10 years. If lawmakers want to put a stop to crime of this nature, laws must be passed and sentences raised, or the damage will continue to be done.

Such damage is now threatening even national security. For the past three years, a group of hackers in West Germany have been hacking into American computer systems. Other countries in Western Europe and Japan were also victims of these hackers.

Among the computers the hackers infiltrated are the U.S. Defense Department’s general databank, known as Optimus; a NASA and a Star Wars research computer; and computers ties to nuclear weapons and energy research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Femi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois.

Supposedly, these hackers sold military secrets to the Russian KGB in return for money and drugs. Other countries affected were Japan, Great Britain, France, Italy, Switzerland, and West Germany. The Pentagon refuses to comment on the significance of the information lost, but say that it was not vital to the security of the U.S. These hackers exploited the same weakness in these computers that Robert Morris did when he unleashed his worm. Five hackers have been arrested so far, and a half-dozen others are being sought.

Even Syracuse is not safe from the threat of hackers. Within the past year there have been two major cases right in the area. Both involve extensive damage, and both are currently in court. The closest case is that of Thomas Crandall, otherwise known as St. Elmo’s Fire. Crandall is accused of destroying attendance and discipline records in a computer at Central Technical and Vocational Center. Police charge that Crandall used a personal computer at his home to access the computer. He is also accused of doing $25,000 in damage to files at Waste Management Inc. Of Oakbrook Ill. Crandall’s attorney claims that many other students also had access to the computer, and that to single out Crandall in unfair.

Perhaps the biggest case locally is that of Robert T. Morris, a student at Cornell University. Morris created a worm, which, when released into ARPAnet (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) shut down over 6,000 computer terminals. It has been argued that Morris’ intentions were not to shut down 6,000 computers. Instead, he wanted the worms to hide in the computers until he was ready. Then Morris would make known the security defects to a community that would not otherwise pay attention. Morris’ worms took three days to kill and caused as much as $96 million in damage. Morris faces up to 10 years in prison.

The effects of hackers in a world run with computers can be devastating. They are like lit torches running free in a barn of dry hay. "Every American – even if he or she has never sat down in front of a computer screen- is critically dependant upon computers." Even organizations such as the Girl Scouts have been the victims of hackers. The take in a traditional armed robbery averages $10,000. Scoring a million dollars in a computers heist, though respectable, is far from extraordinary. It’s people like Kevin Mitnick who are the most dangerous though. People like Mitnick, who is being held in solitary confinement, are the most dangerous. Black says that, :If you have a job, pay bills, drive a car, or use a phone Mitnick can find you and ruin you electronically." It is estimated that if all banks’ computers failed tonight, 60% would not open for business tomorrow. Computer crimes take a toll of between 100 and 300 million dollars annually, which is quite a sum. Other sources estimate that nearly 25% of all business profits are eaten away by computer crimes. People like Mitnick, who did $4 million in damage, are a serious threat to society. If these people are not stopped, their damage will continue to increase, until the economy can no longer take it. Not just banks, but hospitals and fire departments also rely on computers. If hackers are not soon stopped, many lives will someday be taken by hackers.

Computer hacking is one of the most damaging crimes of our time. Every year, more and more computers are falling victim to hackers. As the world’s dependency upon computers increases, so does the threat of the hacker. In a world that depends on computers, their disruption could mean chaos. Only when hacker are stopped for good, will we be able to use computers to their full potential. When this day arrives, our lives become much smoother, and much easier.


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