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Cisco source code theft part of 'mega-hack'

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The theft of proprietary source code from Cisco Systems last year was part of a much larger attack that breached "thousands of computer systems", according to investigators.

Hackers made off the secret blueprint for software that controls the flow of traffic on the internet when they broke into Cisco's network in May 2004 and pinched portions of Cisco's router software. Around 800MB of code relating to Cisco IOS 12.3 and 12.3t was nicked. Hackers posted a 2.5MB snippet onto an IRC channel as proof of the attack. The theft raised fears among security pros because wider access to Cisco's proprietary source code could make it easier for hackers to develop exploits.

FBI officials are now working on the theory that this Cisco break-in was part of a much larger attack against systems run by the American military, NASA and university research laboratories, the New York Times reports. A Swedish 16-year-old, charged in March with breaking into computers at Uppsala University, has become a key suspect in the ongoing investigation. The attack on Cisco has been traced back to Uppsala University’s network.

FBI and the Swedish police have pooled forces to investigate the case, with investigators in Britain and other countries involved in the search for possible accomplices. Investigators are working on the theory that a small group of hackers (based in Europe) "organised a system for automating the theft of computer log-ins and passwords" using corrupt versions of SSH system administration utilities contaminated with Trojan code, the New York Times reports.

These stolen passwords provided a platform for further attacks, which began to ring alarm bells in April 2004, a month before news of the Cisco attack. Investigators reckon that compromised computers at the University of Minnesota were among those used as a staging post for attacks.

In April 2004, Berkeley researcher Wren Montgomery discovered that her PC had been compromised. To add insult to injury she began to receive taunting email from a hacker going by the name of "Stakkato" who investigators suspect was the main culprit in the mega-hack. Around the same time several US supercomputer laboratories connected to the high-speed TeraGrid network admitted that their systems had been attacked.

In emails to Montgomery, Stakkato claimed to have broken into the systems of White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, among other places. A spokesman for White Sands and unnamed FBI sources, in the case of NASA's JPL, confirmed claims of low-level attacks (at least) in both cases. ®

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