LONDON — A British man is free on bail after being charged with hacking into U.S. government military and civilian computer systems. The case highlights the difficulty of securing sensitive data, and could be complicated by anger in Europe over revelations of U.S. intelligence agencies tracking millions of emails and phone calls.
The 28-year-old from a rural village in eastern England is charged with cybercrimes in the United States and Britain. He allegedly worked with hackers in Sweden and Australia to repeatedly break into the computer systems of thousands of U.S. organizations, including the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the NASA space agency, over the past year.
The British man, identified as Lauri Love, is charged with stealing personal information about members of the U.S. military, budget documents, contract information and details about plans to close military facilities. There is no indication the hackers did anything with the data they allegedly took.
Cyber Security Professor Tom Chen of City University London says such hacking is a longstanding problem that has not gotten much closer to being solved.
“There are new vulnerabilities all the time in systems, and these systems are being probed constantly, especially the military ones, the government ones. It’s an ongoing problem because of the complexity of software these days. It’s just impossible to catch all the vulnerabilities in time," said Chen.
And Chen says hackers are difficult to find because the Internet makes it easy for them to hide their identities and locations. In this case, the man was found in part because he bragged about his exploits in online chat rooms. Prosecutors published transcripts in which he allegedly said he could steal the identities of U.S. government employees and contractors.
The accused faces up to 10 years in jail and large fines if he is convicted in the United States. But first he would have to be extradited, and some commentators say that may be more difficult after the uproar over U.S. government monitoring of millions of emails and phone calls in Europe, including calls by dozens of leaders.
But Professor Chen says this type of hacking is not the same as spying, and governments will react differently.
“Other governments should be sympathetic because it’s just as easy to imagine a hacker getting into UK sites or any other nation’s sites. That’s a problem that all the governments face, and I think they would be sympathetic to each other," he said.
Still, Britain blocked the extradition to the U.S. of a man facing similar charges just a year ago.
But experts say that was a special case because the man has Asperger’s Syndrome. They also say the latest case appears to involve more U.S. agencies and more data.