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Reports: Hackers Gained Access to NASA Computers

September 16, 1987

FRANKFURT, West Germany (AP) _ West German youths say they used home computers to break into NASA’s worldwide computer information network, but NASA denied the hackers had obtained secrets about the U.S. space program.

The youths gained regular access to at least 20 NASA computers between May and this month through a flaw in the computer network’s security system, the ARD television network said in its ″Panorama″ news program Tuesday night.

ARD said the system connects more than 1,600 computers in nine nations that share information on space research, nuclear physics, and molecular biology, including computers at U.S. atomic research facilities in Los Alamos, N.M. ARD did not say whether classified information had been obtained from the Los Alamos computers.

In Washington, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration denied that secret information could be obtained through its computer system. ″We know of no classified information which can be accessed through the network,″ said a NASA statement.

Michael Butz, a spokesman for the West German Interior Ministry, which is in charge of many police functions, said his office had no information about the reported hacking.

Justice Ministry spokesman Henning Gehl said the hackers’ actions may be punishable under a law on computerized information passed last year. Violators face a maximum penalty of three years in prison as well as fines, Gehl said.

The Hamburg-based Chaos Computer Club said the youths admitted to club officials they had developed a program they called the ″Trojan Horse″ to gain access to the NASA information network.

The club said the hacking was discovered by a ″systems manager″ in Heidelberg who then notified those using the computer network.

Stern, a Hamburg-based news magazine, reported similar information in an advance story sent to news media Tuesday.

It quoted one of the hackers as saying he was surprised when he gained access to the NASA computers.

″When I saw ‘Welcome to the NASA headquarters ... installation’ on my screen, I was a little shocked, to say the least,″ Stern quoted the unidentified youth as saying.

ARD said the hackers obtained NASA information on space shuttle projects, computer security studies and rocket boosters through the computer program, known as the ″Space Physics Analysis Network″ or SPAN.

The news reports did not say how many hackers were involved or where they are from.

Stern quoted one hacker as identifying one of the tapped NASA computers as a VAX11/785 built by Maynard, Mass.-based Digital Equipment Corp.

Harald Karcher, spokesman for Digital’s West German branch in Munich, told The Associated Press that ″within the next week″ systems of that type will be fitted with a new security system.

ADN said that through SPAN the hackers also gained access to computers at the European Space Agency in Darmstadt, West Germany, the European Nuclear Research Center in Geneva and the European Laboratory for Molecular Biology in Heidelberg, West Germany.

The Chaos Computer Club said in a statement released to news media that the hackers had developed programs that allowed them entry into data files without being detected.

The hackers, who turned to the club for help when they realized the enormity of their discovery, said they penetrated the network to show the ″unbelievable weaknesses″ of the security system, ARD said.

But NASA said of SPAN: ″The purpose of the network is to provide easy access for appropriate individuals to NASA unclassified data. Any individual or organization engaged in NASA-related research can apply for access to SPAN.″

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