Hackers Strike Advanced Computing Networks

By Brian Krebs
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 13, 2004; 5:40 PM

Hackers infiltrated powerful supercomputers at colleges, universities and research institutions in recent weeks, disrupting one of the nation's largest online research networks for several days and raising concerns among computer security experts that the compromised machines could be used to attack specific Web sites or parts of the Internet.

As many as 20 institutions were targeted, according to two sources who work at facilities affected by the attacks. Both asked that their names be withheld because they are aiding the ongoing investigation and fear that officials at other institutions may refuse to cooperate if they believe they could become the subject of media coverage.

One powerful research computing project affected by the attack was TeraGrid, a network of computers funded by the National Science Foundation and used to conduct intensive data-crunching projects such as weather forecasting and genome sequencing.

The attacks prevented some researchers from using the grid for up to five days last week as investigators assessed the damage, said Pete Beckman, director of engineering for the TeraGrid project at Argonne National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy lab operated by the University of Chicago. Beckman said several systems were hit at the lab, which maintains sites in suburban Chicago and Idaho.

Hackers also broke into TeraGrid systems at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at the University of San Diego, California.

The hackers' identities remain unknown. None of the systems were permanently damaged, but the hackers gained the ability to control the various networks for at least short periods of time.

With that much computing power at their disposal, the hackers could have launched an assault capable of disabling large portions of the Internet, said Russ Cooper, a chief scientist with Herndon, Va.-based TruSecure Corp.

Even harnessing the power of one high-performance computer on a high-speed research network could give intruders the attack resources equal to hundreds -- if not thousands -- of desktop computers, Cooper said.

"This could be a wake-up call to what should be very, very secure computing environments, because these machines should never have been compromised."

The FBI contacted officials at the schools, according to Beckman and Tina Bird, a computer security officer at Stanford University. FBI spokesman Paul Bresson declined to comment on whether an investigation is underway.

The Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible helping guard the nation's critical information and communications systems, also declined to comment.

The incident underscores years of warnings from cybersecurity experts in the government and private sector that the United States could suffer a major electronic attack at the hands of ever more sophisticated online criminals. In June 2002, The Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence agencies had monitored al Qaeda operatives probing computer systems at dams, power plants and other critical infrastructure facilities.

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