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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hacking a Swath Through the Internet Jungle

NEW YORK -- As a boy, John Lee belonged to a tough street gang in New York called the Decepticons. But his life on the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant ended when his mother gave him a $299 computer as a birthday present. In sixth grade, he was hooked on a Commodore 64. It became more powerful than an ordinary weapon.


"I had been playing with computers since I was 10, but there were no games back then, so I had to learn to program it myself," says Lee, whose massive, 6-foot, 3-inch frame makes him look more like a boxer than a computer junkie.


At 16, the rebellious Catholic school kid joined a gang of computer hackers called the Masters of Deception, a devilish group of boys who liked to play pranks on other computer users. When they logged on, its members went by names like "Phiber Optik," "HAC" and "Corrupt."


They tapped on their computer keyboards to break into some of the world's biggest corporations, ranging from regional telephone systems to banks and defense contractors. With their computer skills, they had the capability of cutting off phone services to the entire northeastern United States.


"I've typed five keys and committed a crime that could put you in prison for five years," Lee says. "It's like a little kid sticking a needle in his arm, and he doesn't know what he's done."


As Lee communicated with other hackers on the Internet, the web of computers linking about 30 million people around the world, he learned how to steal other users' passwords and intercept private conversations without being detected.


Sitting at home in front of their screens, Lee and his teenage friends grew fascinated with their power to explore the computer systems of such giant companies as AT&T, the Bank of America, Martin Marietta and TRW.


"We were exploring a new universe. We got too good at it," says Lee, now 22.


In fact, he became so good at it that authorities from the Secret Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation spent months monitoring his illegal activities, and finally arrested him in July 1992. After Lee pleaded guilty to breaking into some of the nation's most sensitive computer systems, a judge in New York sentenced him, along with the four other Masters of Deception, to a year in prison.


"Going to jail was a very painful experience," says Lee, who got out of prison last year. "But out of all the stuff that I've seen from hacking and doing stuff all over the world ... I must admit that if someone said, 'Would you do it all over again?' I think I'd say, yeah."


Today the possibility of hackers breaking into corporate and government computers poses a constant threat to society. Trade secrets, national security and public safety are at risk, as thousands of hackers penetrate computer systems in control of missiles, phone systems and the U.S. Weather Service.


"It's a cyberspace world. Nobody can police it," Lee says.


The FBI estimates that the total annual economic loss from computer crimes could be as high as $5 billion. The Justice Department and the FBI are gearing up for a growing battle against hackers like John Lee.


"There's a percentage of the U.S. population that's up to no good," says Scott Charney, head of the computer crime unit of the Justice Department and one of the agents who handled Lee's case. "They're going to look at this technology and say, 'How can I commit fraud using this technology? How can I steal property using this technology?'"


Indeed, a rash of computer break-ins, thefts and assaults already has taken place on the information superhighway. Consider some of the recent cases:


?U.S. Defense Department computers have been broken into by Dutch, British and American hackers, who have gained access to data on everything from ballistic missiles and aircraft design to artificial intelligence and troop movements during the Gulf War.


?In February, FBI agents captured a 31-year-old computer expert, Kevin Mitnick, accused of stealing 20,000 credit card numbers, including some of well-known millionaires. The convicted computer felon had been on the run for more than two years.


?National Weather Service computers were penetrated last year by Danish hackers, who slowed down its system to the point of potentially causing disaster. Had it not been for a backup computer system and the service's prompt action, airplane pilots, for example, might have been unable to get timely weather reports.


?A piracy ring arrested in Spain stole 140,000 telephone credit card numbers and sold them across the U.S. to users, who made $140 million worth of long distance phone calls.


?Test versions of new software programs, like Microsoft's Windows 95 and Describe, were stolen last year by hackers who posted them on the Internet for anyone to use, causing millions of dollars in lost revenues.


?A hacker broke into Britain's Ministry of Defense computers last year and obtained confidential information about the nation's intelligence services, in one of the nation's worst breaches of security.


Experts say that part of the problem is that although companies and government agencies are aware of the risks, they have very little recourse. Numerous security systems and so-called firewalls have been designed to protect computers from penetration from outsiders.


But as John Lee says, with a snap of his fingers, "It's that easy to break firewalls. The way you break into a protected system is to fool it into making it believe you're an invited guest."


The problem of uninvited guests browsing through computer systems is bound to grow as the number of users on the Internet skyrockets. Experts say the number is growing by about 20 percent a month. That means that next year the Internet may have nearly 100 million users.


An Internet connection, which can be purchased for as little as $20 a month, provides access to a vast amount of information, ranging from the holdings of the Louvre, Library of Congress and Vatican Library to details of a city's traffic congestion and pictures of the comet that crashed into Jupiter.


But the Internet's greatest asset -- being borderless -- is also a drawback. A computer criminal in one country may not be breaking the law or held accountable in another.


"The real problem with all this is when there's a problem, who do you call?" says Alan Brill of Kroll Associates, an international investigative agency based in New York. "There's nobody in charge."


Brill says international espionage and organized crime activities, like money laundering and drug sales, will be carried out on the Internet with more and more frequency. "What we're seeing is that corporate espionage and government espionage has gone into the computer age," Brill says.


Although the superhighway has tremendous advantages, experts warn that companies and individuals must be aware of the potential for abuse. Now rehabilitated, John Lee warns, "Wiring the whole society means everyone brings with it all their own morals. The Internet carries with it all of society's ills. It's unfortunate."


As for his own obsession with computers, Lee says he has sworn off all illegal activities and is developing a career in film instead. But he says it has been difficult to break his old hacking habits.


"It's like drugs," Lee says. "It's a powerful subculture. It's hard to resist. I'm in withdrawal."