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Original Intel hacker's appeal denied

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Randal Schwartz is something of a legend in the hacking community though his name was never implanted in the mainstream consciousness like Kevins Mitnick and Poulsen. Schwartz never went on the lam, never made it to America's Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries, and never did hard time.

But Schwartz is well known and respected among computing enthusiasts as an early and devoted Perl booster and all around übergeek, though he did manage to do something extraordinarily unwise while working as a consultant to Intel Corporation in 1993, which led to his conviction under Oregon computer crime statutes.

We say 'unwise' because there's never been a shred of evidence that he meant to do the company harm when he ran a password cracking utility against their Supercomputer Systems Division (SSD) network, a fact which accounts for the comparatively light sentence he got in exchange for conviction on three felony counts: five years' probation, 480 hours of community service, 90 days of (eventually suspended) jail time, and $68 thousand of restitution to Intel.

The whole affair escalated in a most unfortunate manner. It began when Schwartz installed a program bypass the company's firewall in order to access his Intel e-mail account when he was away from the site. He took precautions to make the setup secure, but agreed to stop using it when confronted by a company sysadmin.

Had Schwartz left it at that, he would not have got into hot water. He had broken the rules, all right; but he did so only to facilitate doing his job. He was told to knock it off, he agreed to do so, and that should have been that.

Unfortunately, a few months later he was discovered using the same sort of utility for the same reason, and Intel probably began to suspect they were going to have trouble with him.

Later that year, he ran a brute-force password cracker against a company machine, and obtained the pass for another employee, which, for some strange reason, he used to log on. With that level of access he was able to copy the entire SSD password file onto another Intel computer named Wyeth. Once the SSD password file was stored on Wyeth, he ran the cracking utility on it and learned the passwords of more than 35 SSD users, including that of the general manager.

At this point, the appeals court speculates, the "defendant believed that if he could show that SSD's security had gone downhill since he had left, he could reestablish the respect he had lost."

Things went even further downhill as Schwartz decided to run the cracker on a very fast Intel machine called Snoopy, in hopes of coming up with a really impressive list of cracked passes. Again, there's no reason to believe that he was engaged in anything worse than a bit of white-hat cracking with the intention of documenting security weaknesses so that he could earn respect and gratitude from his former bosses.

On October 28, 1993, Intel sysadmin Mark Morrissey noticed that Schwartz was attacking the machine Snoopy. Following an investigation which revealed numerous earlier lapses, Intel decided to contact the police, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Since Schwartz's arrest, a great number of people familiar with the case have maintained that Intel overreacted, and cracked a very small nut with a very large sledgehammer.

In his appeal, Schwartz sought to have his conviction overturned with arguments on several rather shaky points, all of which the appellate court rejected. After reading it (linked below) we do have to agree that the conviction is valid, but nevertheless shudder at the thought of applying such hardcore criminal laws to such minor infractions. ®

Related Links

the appellate court's ruling
the Friends of Randal Schwartz Web site
Mark Morrissey's report to Intel
a Schwartz apology by Jeffrey Kegler

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