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Bit of a phone phreak

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securityfocus.com Usenet posts show Gary McKinnon was a bit of a phone phreak, knew where to buy lock picks, and had an early interest in defense computers. A former employer says he was bored at work.

The British man accused of the most ambitious hack attacks against Defense Department computers in years was also a fine network administrator, according to a former co-worker.

A manager at the London-based telecom equipment seller Corporate Business Technology Ltd. recalls Gary McKinnon as a friendly -- if unremarkable -- presence at the company, where he provided IT support for an office of about 50 people. "He was personable, relatively happy around the office," says the manager, who declined to give his name. "You wouldn't have realized that he could do what he did."

McKinnon, now 36, worked for CBT for approximately ten months ending in late 1999, the company says. He left on good terms. "As I remember it, he decided to leave because he was bored working here," says the manager. "But at the time that he left, he didn't have any place to go to."

On Tuesday (Nov 12, 2002), U.S. officials in Virginia charged McKinnon with seven felony counts of computer fraud for allegedly penetrating 92 different systems belonging to the Army, Navy, Air Force, the Pentagon, and NASA, as well as six computers owned by private companies and organizations, in a year-long hacking spree that ended last March.

A related indictment unsealed the same day in New Jersey charges the Londoner with a September, 2001 attack against U.S. Navy systems at the Earle Naval Weapons Station that allegedly resulted in the network of 300 computers being shut down for a week.

The private computers listed in the Virginia indictment are mostly at traditional easy targets, like public libraries and universities, and may have been used as cut-outs to cover the hacker's tracks. Gregg Cannon, IT director at victim-company Tobin International in Texas, says federal investigators contacted and subpoenaed his company early this year after a test system outside the company firewall was compromised and used to attack government computers. "All the government would tell us is that it was overseas," says Cannon. "He didn't do any damage."

Diverse Interests

The U.S. is seeking McKinnon's extradition, which McKinnon is fighting in the U.K.

McKinnon's former co-worker said Wednesday that there was nothing about the network admin to hint at a future as a civilian infowarrior, "assuming it was him that did it."

A trail of Usenet messages posted by McKinnon in the late 1990's to public Internet newsgroups suggests McKinnon had an early interest in esoteric technological subjects.

Postings in 1997 to the U.K. phone hacking newsgroup alt.ph.uk show McKinnon, or someone with the same name, offering advice on purchasing lock picks in the U.K., tips on encrypting files, and hints on changing the electronic serial numbers in cellular telephones.

A flurry of less subversive posts in December, 1999 from an email address at Corporate Business Technologies have McKinnon advising colleagues in Windows-administration newsgroups on a variety of topics -- most of them security related.

One post from that period hints at an earlier start to McKinnon's interest in U.S. defense systems than the government has acknowledged. The message finds McKinnon advising someone on what brand of intrusion detection system to buy. He recommends ISS's RealSecure, because "The US Navy use[s] that and only that ..."

"[B]ut then," McKinnon adds without explanation, "they really need it."

© 2002 Security Focus. All rights reserved.

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