"It was super-simple to do," said a 15-year-old Milwaukee computer wizard about a recent "WarGames"-style raid on a nuclear weapons laboratory computer.
"Anyone who understands computers and has the curiosity and the patience to poke around can do it. You don't think you're committing a crime until the police come pounding on your door."
The teen-ager, advised by his attorney not to reveal his name, said in a telephone interview from his home yesterday that he "may or may not be" one of 10 young people aged 15 to 22 under investigation for electronically breaking into a computer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. He says, however, he is friends with "all the people involved" in the Los Alamos incident, adding that "the FBI came knocking on my door."
Last December, he was arrested for a similar break-in on a computer system at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.
The whiz kids involved in the Los Alamos incident, he said, "are going to meet this weekend to decide whether or not to talk to the press. But I think they're going to wait until they see what the FBI is going to do before writing a magazine article or anything like that."
The FBI will say only that it is investigating the matter, which was discovered in June, and that it has not pressed charges.
The "WarGames" movie was not the inspiration for the raid, claimed the youngster, who said he saw the movie with about 12 of his computer friends--"not all of them were involved"--the day it opened in Milwaukee.
But the youth said he "kind of identified with" the lead, played by Matthew Broderick, whose zest for computers led him to accidental communication with a Defense Department supercomputer progammed to analyze potential war situations in deadly earnest.
"I knew how scared he felt," said the teen-ager, a junior at a computer specialty high school in Milwaukee who described himself as an "all-American boy." After his break-in at the Milwaukee School of Engineering was discovered in December, "The police came here at night with a search warrant, nearly broke the door down and confiscated my computer.
"Then they took me down to book me, but they didn't even know what to charge me with." Charges--"I think they called it computer fraud"--were later dropped, his family settled for "a monetary amount I'm not supposed to reveal," and his computer was returned in May.
The idea behind the Los Alamos break-in, he said, "was just to try and do it. The thing people try to do is get into privileged accounts. You want to get as far as you can go . . . just for the challenge."
As in "WarGames," members of the group tried various combinations of area codes and two-digit "port numbers" on their computers, he said, to try to get into any unauthorized systems. "Then, whenever somebody found one (that worked) they'd tell the other people. Then you could try to break in."
The youngsters weren't specifically after the nuclear weapons laboratory computer at Los Alamos, he said. "They were looking for anything they could get. They probably just stumbled across that one."
Computer-powered juvenile delinquents could not start World War III, he said, "unless it was an inside job. Government systems' security is too strong."
The goal of the raid? "They had nothing better to do," said the teen-ager, who added that he "usually just screws around for two hours or so a day" on his computer. "Most of them are out of high school; only one is in college. Basically they just sit home. They're not sure what they want to do. I think some may decide to go to college, unless they get convicted. They're pretty scared."
The FBI's confrontation with the youngsters "has been in the works for a number of weeks," said Claudia Houston, spokeswoman for GTE Telenet, the data communications network the youngsters used to obtain access to the Los Alamos computer. "They violated the theft-of-service law. We cooperated with the FBI and the customers at the computer center in identifying the source of the violation."
The computer involved was operated by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy, Houston said. It had relatively low security because it is "designed for access by science and engineering students." The damage amounted to "vandalism."
"They didn't get into any data," she said. "They got in and messed around with some user names and operating systems. No permanent damage was done, and the computer center has changed its security code."
Despite his past arrest for the engineering school incident, the teen-ager doesn't consider himself a computer criminal. "I think there should be another word for that, because nothing was destroyed in any of those computer systems and nobody was hurt. I didn't even have to leave my bedroom, yet there the police were, knocking on my door."
Breaking into a computer system "is wrong," he admits, "because I wasn't supposed to be in there in the first place." What was he doing with the Milwaukee School of Engineering computer? "Just looking around. Every couple of days I'd poke around just to see what I could find. Actually, it was pretty boring."
His dream: "getting into MIT and being in charge of some computer department somewhere."