DOJ snags Argentine hacker

The Justice Department has tracked down and charged a 21-year-old computer hacker for allegedly accessing sensitive satellite, radiation and energy-related engineering data contained in government computer systems.

An arrest warrant has been issued for Julio Cesar Ardita of Buenos Aires, who gained unauthorized access to computers at the Naval Research Laboratory, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Naval Command, Control and Ocean Surveillance Center, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Ames Research Center. Only sensitive, nonclassified data was compromised, according to DOJ.

Ardita allegedly entered the different government sites by first breaking into computers maintained by Harvard University and then connecting to the government sites.

The case is the first example of DOJ using a court-ordered wiretap on a computer network to pursue a computer hacker. Law enforcement officials have done surveillance on computer systems before.

However, court authorization in this case was deemed necessary because Harvard does not post a banner on its system that tells users their activities on-line may be monitored.

The Naval Command, Control and Ocean Surveillance Center discovered the first sign of intrusion last August, with evidence of break-ins to sensitive but unclassified systems containing aircraft design, radar technology and satellite engineering data.

Authorities traced the hacker's path back to a computer system at Harvard. Then, using a method that amounts to a kind of cyber-fingerprinting, authorities developed a profile that characterized the hacker's computer sessions. With this assembled, the U.S. attorney in Boston obtained a court-authorized wiretap. Authorities then "wiretapped" the Harvard system.

With the help of a high-speed computer, investigators matched the hacker's profile against the stream of Harvard system data. In real time, they zeroed in on the hacker's communications sessions.

"One of the great challenges we face is how do we use computers in the right way" to investigate crimes "while protecting the privacy" of individuals, said Janet Reno, U.S. attorney general. Matching the computer hacker's signature against a high stream of communication to tease out the suspect's activity, she said, is one example of how DOJ is attempting to do this.

"I anticipate appropriate, court-ordered wiretaps will be used in a like vein. I think this case reflects our capability to track down intruders, wherever they are," Reno said.

The case was investigated by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the FBI. Ardita has not been extradited. He faces felony charges in the United States and is under investigation in Argentina.

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