Waging War With Computers

They are 17 and call themselves Sniper and Solar—members of the hacker underworld.

These kids use software with names like Satan and John the Ripper to break into government computers.

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"It was just kinda to show the government that they're not as secure as they think," says the hacker who calls himself Sniper. "This . . . right here is called Satan."

Sniper and Solar don't go to school, but they understand in detail what most of us only dimly grasp. The United States—its transportation, its communications, its banking, its electrical power, its military—depends on computer networks that are vulnerable to what a presidential commission warned could be "a devastating attack."

If an enemy used a bomb to blow up the Defense computer center in Oklahoma City, it would be an act of war. But with cyber-war you don't need a bomb. You just use the Internet to infiltrate the system—erase files, redirect messages, turn order into chaos.

Beyond The Broadcast: Click here for an interview with MOD hackers.(CBS)
The Pentagon found out how vulnerable it is to this type of attack last year, when a team of computer experts from the National Security Agency launched a mock cyber-attack. Had it been real, the assault would have knocked out power grids in cities with major military commands.

"It used to be easy not to worry about these kinds of attacks on the United States, because it would cost a lot for someone to send their army over to the United States to attack us," says Kathy Fifthen, who runs a computer emergency response team at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh.

But the Internet has changed all that. Last year Fifthen's team handled more than 2,200 hacker attacks.

"On the Internet, there are no boundaries," Fifthen says. "There's nothing to stop you from crossing the border."

A teen-ager in Sweden used his laptop to flood the 911 service for much of Florida with bogus calls. The adolescent dream of getting into the school computer to change your grades has turned into a nightmare.

"Some students gained access to a hospital and actually changed medical records from cancer tests," Fifthen says. "And women began undergoing cancer treatment, and then they found out that the records had been altered."

Sniper and Solar say they haven't done anything like that, but they are part of a network of hackers who steal Pentagon software. They say their group has about 15 people And it's an international effort, with members in Russia as well as the United States.

Bill Zane's Web page was hacked by a group of teenagers in California and Israel. "They trade the passwords that they've stolen, and they trade the software they use. And they're talking to each other, and they're bragging to each other," Zane says.

And worse, hackers are now talking about selling the software they steal from the government. "There's a lot of people who'd like to get their hands on U.S. government software and ideas," Solar says.

"There might be like terrorists, people that want it and think that they can like shut down the United States with it," adds Sniper.

Solar and Sniper swear they'd never do it, but John Vernessovich, who uses the Internet to talk to hackers all over the world, says the demand for their services is enormous.

"Dozens of people on a daily basis e-mail me wanting to know how they can get in touch with these people," he says.

Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre says that what started as a game of electronic gotcha has turned nasty and the stakes are getting higher.

"There is a transformation underway, away from the voyeurism that typified computer attacks in the past toward more serious and potentially dangerous things in the future," Hamre says.

"I believe within a year that we'll see hackers gain access to classified material," Vernessovich says.

As he scrolls through the electronic allies of the hacker underworld, Vernessovich can see with a few keystrokes what it took a presidential commission a year to figure out.

"The capability to do harm is real. It is growing at an alarming rate, and we have little defense against it," he says.

CBS News Correspondent David Martin