A THIEF IN THE NIGHT

by David Sisler

"All I know," Will Rogers said, "is just what I read in the papers."

Sometimes, that is enough.

It happened in February and they are just now telling us about it. They are not telling us everything, and if we are lucky, very lucky, they will never tell us everything. Oh, some journalist with more concern for his byline than for the security and well-being of our country will cry about "the public's right to know" and sue under the freedom of information act, but maybe, just maybe, the judge will have the wisdom to say, "No!"

If, on February 2, you had taken Route 22 east out of Pittsburgh and then headed north on Route 119 through Indiana, PA, turning west on Highway 36 at Gobblers Knob, you would have joined hundreds of people traveling to the home of one of the world's most famous groundhogs, Punxsutawney Phil. Phil was rudely awakened so that forecasters could tell us if spring was in the air, or winter would hang on for another six weeks. You would have needed to have traveled several thousand miles west on Ground Hog Day, 1998, to have witnessed an even more rude, and frightening, awakening.

It was definitely not a rite of spring when analysts at the Air Force's national computer monitoring center in San Antonio started seeing an unusual series of warning indicators on their screens. Hackers were breaking into electronic networks around the country.

Every day there are hundreds of attempts to enter various "secure" computer sites around the nation. It is not an unusual occurrence. The strikes that the analysists were seeing on February 2 were different there was a definite pattern, and they were succeeding. Coming first from Connecticut and then from Texas and Utah, someone was exploiting a vulnerability in the computer operating system widely used at defense installations.

It took authorities nearly a month, but they finally tracked down two 16-year-old hackers in California and another in Israel. Before the trio was uncovered, experts told President Clinton that they were fearful that the United States was under attack. A cyber war is a real possibility, and with Iraq at that time under threat of American air strikes, they were considered the likely culprits.

As far as authorities have determined, the penetrations did not compromise national security, but the episode left the Pentagon badly shaken. So urgent were the military's conclusions that President Clinton, because of the hackers' attacks, announced the first-ever national policy for cyber security.

The Pentagon had been warned that such an attack was possible. In June, 1997, teams from the National Security Agency demonstrated that they could disrupt military commands, as well as civilian electrical and telephone service. The exercise, dubbed "Eligible Receiver," showed that large-scale blackouts could be caused with off-the-shelf computers, and currently available programs.

Additionally, numerous studies have demonstrated the vulnerability of computers, particularly those using the "Solaris" operating system a system which, according to The Washington Post, is widely used at defense installations. In spite of the warnings, security installations lacked adequate safeguards. And there was no plan for coordinating a response.

Indeed, current laws which require investigators to secure a court order to trace beyond the Internet service provider closest to the hacked system hindered the investigation. Because of those restrictions, it took officials a full week to determine that a cyber attack was underway.

One of the unnamed, but highly placed sources (is there any other kind), speaking on conditions of anonymity (so he or she cannot be held accountable for his words, no matter what effects they may generate) was quoted as saying, "The government was not prepared at all to handle this. It was a fairly wrenching experience for us."

Post reporter, Bradley Graham said, "The weakness in the Solaris operating system that the intruders were exploiting was one that military administrators had been alerted about and told to patch last December. But many had failed to heed the warning."

We know there is a likely weakness. We know there is potential for invasion. Still we do not prepare.

"If the homeowner had known what time of night the burglar would arrive, he would have been there with his dogs to prevent the break-in. Be vigilant just like that. If you pull the covers back over your head and sleep on, oblivious to God, I'll return when you least expect it," Jesus said, "and break into your life like a thief in the night."

-30-

Published in the Augusta Chronicle 6/6/98

Copyright 1998 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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