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The Solar Sunrise Case: Mak, Stimpy, and Analyzer Give the DoD a Run for Its Money

In January 1998, tensions between the United States, the United Nations, and Iraq were on the rise. Saddam Hussein had expelled the UN weapons inspectors, dominating the headlines, precipitating an international crisis, and pushing the United States to the brink of renewed military action in the Persian Gulf.

On February 3, the Automated Security Incident Monitors (ASIM), the USAF’s intrusion detection system, detected a root-level compromise on an Air National Guard computer system located at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

On February 4, the Air Force’s Computer Emergency Response Team (AFCERT) at Kelly Air Force Base in Texas detected additional compromises of systems at other Air Force Bases including Kirtland in New Mexico, Lackland in Texas, and Columbus in Mississippi.

The intruders would gain entrance to a site with tools from some .edu site (often a DNS server), and then obtain root access using the statd vulnerability. After they gained root access, the intruders would install a sniffer program to collect user passwords and create a backdoor to get back into the system. Intriguingly, the intruders would then eradicate the statd vulnerability (see CERT Advisory CA-97.26) by downloading a patch and exit the system without exploring any further.

Although the targeted systems were not classified, they were all involved in the military build-up being undertaken in regard to the Iraqi weapons inspection crisis. If the targeted systems were damaged, it could impede the flow of transportation, personnel, and medical supplies. If the Iraqis were gathering, aggregating, and analyzing the data from the targeted systems, they could use it to surmise the U.S. military’s plans.

Could these intrusions be the first indications of impending information warfare with the Iraqis? Clearly, the intrusions had to be taken seriously.

Martha Stansell-Gamm, head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property (CCIP) section, provides some insight into the ensuing probe.

“One of the singular aspects of Solar Sunrise was that it was such a multi-agency investigation,” she says. “The Ardita case, for example, involved both the Navy and the FBI, but the Navy quite clearly took the lead. In the Rome Labs case, it was the Air Force that drove the investigation. But Solar Sunrise involved Army, Navy, Air Force, FBI, NASA, CIA, NSA, and others.

“Everybody was working on different pieces of it,” Stansell-Gamm adds. “Everybody agreed to meet around our kitchen table at CCIP to figure out what we had, then come up with a plan and coordinate the effort. We didn’t do it because somebody said so; we did it because it just made sense to everybody to do it that way. Everybody learned something whenever we got together. It was one way for us at CCIP to make sure that the needs of the investigators were being met. It was simply the most efficient way to go as far and as fast as possible and it just sort of happened.”

The unprecedented interagency cooperation bore fruit.

They obtained 19 court orders in fewer than 10 days. And amazingly, a Title III wiretap was written, approved by DoJ, and sworn to in one day.

The intruders in the Solar Sunrise case didn’t turn out to be Iraqi information warriors on a some kind of cyber-Jihad after all. Like Datastream Cowboy, Kuji, and El Griton, they turned out to be youthful joy riders.

The big mistake that led to the identification and capture of the intruders was a doozy. They had ftp’d sniffer output (i.e., user names and passwords) from the hacked system at Andrews AFB directly to Sonic.net, an ISP in Northern California. Then they ftp’d the purloined data to their own user accounts at Sonic using their own home PCs.

“They” turned out to be two 16-year-olds (a.k.a. Stimpy and Mak). Indeed, they had already come to the attention of the ISP’s sysadmin. Harvard and MIT had complained about attempted intrusions by the two hackers.

Authorities put a wiretap in place to capture Stimpy’s keystrokes after the two logged on to their accounts at Sonic. A pen register verified that calls were being made to Sonic from Stimpy’s home phone line at the same time that the accounts were being accessed. Furthermore, physical surveillance at Mak’s residence identified the occupants of the house at the time of the connection.

The evidence had to show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Without the confirmation provided by correlating the evidence from the wiretaps, the pen registers, and the physical surveillance, the accused might have argued that someone else had hacked into their accounts and used them to undertake the attacks.

The investigation had been going well, but a serious problem developed. John Hamre, an undersecretary of defense, blundered in a briefing with reporters. He let it slip out that the suspects were kids living in Northern California. That meant investigators had to race to execute their search warrants before Mak and Stimpy were tipped off by hearing about themselves on the evening news. The time difference between the coasts proved helpful as search warrants were executed early that evening.

Special Agent Chris Beeson of the San Francisco FBI Computer intrusion squad, armed and wearing a bulletproof vest (standard operating procedure), was the first law enforcement officer through the door of Stimpy’s bedroom. Stimpy was on-line at the time. The kid simply looked up at Beeson and kept typing on the keyboard until he was pulled away from the computer.

“Their rooms were a mess,” Beeson recounts. “They were actually cleaner after we left then when we got there. The scene was typical of teenagers. Pepsi cans. Half-eaten cheeseburgers. It is not like what you see on TV. We don’t turn everything upside down. When we do a search, we take pictures when we get there and pictures when we leave. After we go through everything, we put it all in nice neat piles.”

In Mak’s room, the investigators found a fictional essay he had written.

About two days ago, one of my friends was raided by the FBI and they were working up to an arrest. Apparently, he hacked NASA. The Feds. Why they bother to messing with us, I don’t know. But if I could get a chance I would go to the informer’s house and politely knock on his door. When he answered I would kindly say “hello,” then I would put a .45 to his head and tell him to get on the ground.

I would have the political prisoners and other friends rig a ten block radius with explosives and then call the FBI and order the release of our friend and a helicopter to fly us to the nearest jet strip. Their problem would be the ten house radius around, if any agent entered, they would blow and above the house I would have mercenaries that would report by radio every five minutes. If the government didn’t comply one person each hour would be shot.

I guess I am going to have to be satisfied with flooding all known government agencies and rendering their capabilities useful.

Mak’s teacher had written some comments on the sheet of paper.

Work on fade in and out of daydream. Write as if you are actually doing this. By the way, this is disturbing.

Both youths were arrested and interviewed. Their true identities, of course, were not disclosed because of their age.

Investigators shared a gut feeling all along that the intruders were indeed adventurous kids, but they had to assume the worst. The stakes were simply too high to take anything for granted. It was a time of international crisis and impending military action. Until proven otherwise, it had to be viewed as a threat to national security.

Meanwhile, a third Solar Sunrise hacker was still unidentified and at large. This third suspect was coming in over the Internet from Israel and launching his attacks against DoD targets from Maroon.com, a Web page hosting service in College Station, Texas. The AFOSI had set up consensual monitoring at Maroon.

The wiretap on Stimpy revealed IRC chats with the third hacker, known to Stimpy as Analyzer. Analyzer was Stimpy’s mentor who coached him in hacking.

Analyzer had chutzpah. Two days after the arrest of Mak and Stimpy, he participated in an on-line interview with AntiOnline, a fascinating hacker news Web site, in which he claimed to have hacked 400 DoD sites and provided lists of dozens of logins and passwords for .mil sites.

On March 18, CNN’s Jerusalem office posted the following story, with a headline that proclaimed, “Master hacker ‘Analyzer’ held in Israel”:

Israeli police spokeswoman Linda Menuchin said the 18-year-old suspect and two alleged accomplices were arrested Wednesday, in part based on information supplied by American authorities. U.S. Justice Department officials in Washington identified the ringleader as Ehud Tenebaum, an Israeli citizen, and said he has been charged with illegally accessing hundreds of computer systems.

The suspects were questioned for several hours at a police station in Bat Yam, a suburb of Tel Aviv, then put under house arrest, Menuchin said. Police confiscated their passports and forbade contact between them.

In an interview with AntiOnline, an online magazine that deals with Internet security issues, one of the teens, nicknamed “Makaveli,” gave this explanation for what he and his cohorts had done: “It’s power, dude. You know, power,” he said.

He said he began hacking as a challenge and concentrated on U.S. government sites because “I hate organizations.”

Though he mused in his interview that “chaos” was a “nice idea,” the Analyzer claimed that his intrusions were actually innocent and that he even helped targets by “patching” weaknesses in their systems to prevent future intrusions.

He admitted teaching other hackers how to target U.S. military systems.

“Since I was going to retire, I was going to teach someone of my knowledge and guide him,” the Analyzer said.(3)

The swift and committed assistance of Israeli law enforcement was essential to the success of the effort to bring Analyzer to justice.

Ehud Tennebaum, 19, and several other Israeli hackers (members of an Israeli hacker group that called itself “The Enforcers”) were charged with hacking the computer systems of the Pentagon and NASA. They pleaded innocent.

Tennebaum’s lawyer said his client broke no law when he penetrated the Internet sites of American and Israeli institutions, including the Knesset, because there was no notice on the sites declaring them off-limits.

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