Hacker in Argentina allegedly snooped on U.S. military secrets His arrest is unlikely

unusual case involved first wiretap of computer

March 30, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- He called himself "griton," Spanish for screamer, and allegedly used stolen Harvard University passwords to sneak into U.S. military computers from his home -- in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

He hacked his way into NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, poked around the Los Alamos National Laboratory and even tried, but failed, to invade the Army Research Laboratory's computer system.

Yesterday, federal officials announced an arrest warrant for Argentine Julio Cesar Ardita, 22, who was described as part cybersnoop, part cyberspook, and was unmasked in an international crime hunt carried out with the first-ever computer wiretap order.

"This is a case of cybersleuthing, a glimpse of what computer crime fighting will look like in the coming years," said Donald Stern, the U.S. attorney in Boston. "We have made enormous strides in developing the investigative tools to track down individuals who misuse vital computer networks."

The felony charges: Fraudulent possession of unauthorized computer passwords, destructive activity in connection with computers and illegal interception of electronic communications.

While Mr. Ardita is accused of hacking his way into "important and sensitive information in government research files on satellites, radiations and energy-related engineering," a Justice Department announcement said, the Argentine is "not accused of obtaining classified information related to national security."

Mr. Ardita may not ever face trial.

While the United States has an extradition treaty with Argentina, the crimes for which Mr. Ardita is being sought are not extraditable, according to John Russell, a Justice Department spokesman

Still, the case reflects the new world of cybercrime confronting federal and international law enforcement agencies.

Attorney General Janet Reno said the unusual use of a wiretap -- in which law enforcement officers electronically sifted through billions of bytes to hunt down and identify an unauthorized hacker -- "is an example of how the Fourth Amendment and a court order can be used to protect rights while adapting to modern technology."

The history-making tap was attached to a Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Science computer in the last two months of 1995, according to Justice Department officials.

It was issued by a federal judge in Boston and involved a balancing act between federal interests in tracking down the hacker and the need to ensure other people's privacy on the Internet, said Mr. Stern.

Mr. Stern added that the suspect had being questioned by Argentine authorities, who have already cooperated with U.S. investigators by seizing his disks and some computer equipment.

Reporters tried to reach the Ardita family by telephone in Buenos Aires yesterday, but their number was constantly busy.

Documents filed with the case identify Mr. Ardita as a former student of applied sciences, whose 22nd birthday was Thursday -- the same date a Massachusetts judge issued his arrest warrant.

The biographical information came from the Ardita family's 1995 applications for tourist visas to enter the United States, which were apparently used for a visit to Chicago in December.

In the summer of 1995, according to a sworn complaint made public by the Justice Department, computer operators at the Naval Command Control and Ocean Surveillance Center in San Diego discovered that an intruder or intruders had electronically entered their files -- and it was eventually determined that the intruder had done it by using the Harvard computers.

Later, officials learned that the intruder stole passwords by using a computer program -- called a "sniffer" -- to scoop up legal users' identification codes and passwords to gain access to the Internet.

"A number of the host computers to which the intruder gained unauthorized access are affiliated with the Department of Defense," said a court affidavit by Peter Garza, special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Los Angeles.

They included the Navy Research Laboratory; NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.; NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif.; the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and the Naval Command Control and Ocean Surveillance Center.

It was unclear yesterday what the hacker did with his entry -- whether, for example, he downloaded sensitive data or other information into his own computer.

Because U.S. officials had not interrogated the suspect, Mr. Stern would not speculate on the suspect's motive. Tens of thousands of dollars were spent on redesigning computer systems that were compromised.

Pub Date: 3/30/96

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