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Notorious Teenagers Hack into Plasma Fusion Center at MIT

T. Luke Young--The Tech
The Plasma Fusion Center was one of many targets of two San Francisco hackers arrested by the FBI.

Krista L. Niece

Two teenage boys are suspected of having illegally broken into the computer system at MIT's Plasma Fusion Center.

The boys are members of a group of hackers in northern California which is believed to have broken into four Navy and seven Air Force systems, as well as dozens of less sensitive facilities.

Although the computers contained only unclassified information, the mass violations have raised concerns about the possibility of electronic sabotage as a means of terrorism.

In addition to the eleven military systems, several federal laboratories, including facilities performing nuclear weapons research, were compromised. Several universities besides MIT, including the University of California at Berkeley, were also invaded by the group.

On Wednesday, FBI agents seized computers, software, printers, and other equipment from the boys' homes, located north of San Francisco. However, none of the teens has been arrested. The FBIhas not released any of the boys' names.

MIT's role in the story was really a "very small part of the whole picture," said Donald R. Nelson, the computer system manager at the PFC. The teens' packet sniffer programs were identified and shut down within twenty-four hours of their being planted.

The break-in "did not have a very wide scope of influence," Nelson said. The computer they broke into has been taken out of service, he said. It was running an old version of the Linux operating system., he said.

There was nothing "particularly secret" being housed on that machine, said Martin J. Greenwald '72, head of the Office of Computer Services at the PFC. However, it did contain "a vast variety of experimental data."

In some cases, break-ins can lead to a loss of data. However, that wasn't an issue in this case, Greenwald said.

"We do a pretty good job of backing everything up," he said. "The concern is more loss of service and loss of time."

Nelson agreed that there was a possibility that the hackers' program would "use too much bandwidth and slow down the machine."

This incident is just one of many recent attempts to gain unauthorized access to MIT's computers. There have been "many, with capital letters" attempted break-ins, Nelson said.

According to the The Washington Post the California teens probably did not have the expertise to invent new techniques for breaking into systems. Like many amateur computer criminals, they were frequent visitors to sites on the Internet where other hackers post instructions detailing how to break into secured networks.

Their motive for the invasions is not currently known. The Post reported that students at the perpetrators' high school speculate that they did it simply for fun.

Incidents such as these should remind all users to change their passwords regularly and to avoid unencrypted systems, Nelson said. Owners and administrators should plug holes in their security systems as soon they are discovered, he added.