Hopkins tightens computer security

Hackers who invaded medical school system slowed e-mail to crawl

May 29, 1999|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

The Johns Hopkins University is tightening its computer security after hackers broke into a computer at the medical school and secretly used it to generate a flood of e-mail advertisements.

Efforts by the university to cope with the October break-in have caused balky and intermittent e-mail service for seven months for hundreds of staff members at the East Baltimore campus. At least once, e-mail service through the system, called "welchlink," shut down for two days.

"What was unique about this break-in was how slick it was," said J. Robert Sapp III, director of advanced technology for the Welch Medical Library. "In one sense it was very frustrating; in another sense you almost had to tip your hat to these folks because they were very, very good."

About $150,000 in new equipment is being installed to restore speedy e-mail service, Sapp said. Security measures have been upgraded, and the university plans further steps to prevent its computers from being hijacked by Web buccaneers.

The trouble began in October. "As near as we can tell, our system was hacked from a site in Asia," said Sapp.

The electronic intruders did not try to break into any files to hunt for data, he said. Instead, they used the Hopkins computer to generate and distribute a large number of e-mail messages promoting Web sites, including one that peddles pornography.

Hackers use other people's computers to spread "spam" -- unsolicited e-mail advertisements -- daily, said John Vranesevich, founder of AntiOnline.com, a computer security Web site.

Many companies that provide Internet services don't let their clients engage in spamming. It is illegal in some countries. And spammers may be harassed electronically by computer users who despise the practice, the Internet's equivalent of junk mail.

"Here's a way for them to do it anonymously, efficiently and continue on with their business," Vranesevich said.

Sapp said the university has not discovered how the hackers gained access to the school's computer. But he suspects that the hackers were professionals. "In all likelihood, these weren't 13-year-old kids," he said.

Don't be too sure, Vranesevich said.

"Many of these highly organized, efficient, professional groups are teen-agers," he said. "They break into dozens and dozens of systems, and it becomes routine to them."

Hopkins officials didn't detect the break-in for at least a couple of weeks, when someone forwarded an ad sent by the Hopkins computer.

"We took the entire system down within hours," Sapp said. To replace it, computer engineers switched to an older, slower computer. And they imposed tougher security measures, further slowing service.

The intruders never threatened to break into confidential patient records at the medical school and hospital, Sapp said. Those records are stored in a separate, high-security network, he said.

To further shield itself, the university plans to funnel all Internet access through a single, highly secure gateway by Sept. 1, Sapp said.

Pub Date: 5/29/99

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