Originally created 05/16/04

Companies fight hackers with hackers



AIKEN - Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

Words of wisdom aren't always easy to live by in the 21st century given today's technological advances, especially when it comes to computer hackers.

The commercial sector has spent the past decade trying to keep up with computer junkies seasoned at the art of weaseling their way into complex security systems.

Some companies have even hired former hackers to test their systems - called "white hat hackers" in the parlance of this electronic world.

The government faces the same dilemma.

"We continually observe the latest developments," said William Miles, the manager of the Savannah River National Laboratory's cybersecurity and digital forensics technology program.

"You've always got someone trying to hack."

It's Mr. Miles' job to stay one step ahead of the digitized terrorist. He's protecting secrets about nuclear energy, a primary reason Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced a $100 million upgrade May 7 to security at nuclear facilities across the country.

Mr. Abraham's announcement talked about strengthening facilities such as the Savannah River Site by testing whether their computer networks contain wormholes for hackers. Mr. Miles and his team continually work to upgrade the laboratory's system, as does a similar team at SRS.

Officials, however, would not comment on how they test the site's computer systems, whether any hacker had ever successfully broken in or whether former hackers had ever been hired.

"You can't let hackers know what you know," said Mike Milnes, a spokesman for the National Laboratory.

But the more worrisome issue, one former DOE insider said, is spying from the within.

"All the spies we know of, DOE and elsewhere, are insiders," said Peter Stockton, who served as a special assistant to then-DOE Energy Secretary Bill Richardson from 1999 to 2001. He's now a consultant with the Project for Government Oversight, which monitors security at DOE installations.

The department's inability to stop insider espionage was exposed in 1999, when scientist Wen Ho Lee was arrested on allegations of spying after he copied classified data and took it from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

He spent months behind bars but pleaded guilty only to mishandling government secrets. A judge apologized to Dr. Lee upon his release, and the incident is remembered by many as an ugly blemish on the Energy Department's record.

Copying classified or secret material from computers similar to the one Dr. Lee used isn't possible, in many cases, at the National Laboratory.

The hard drives that store such information are separate from computers that scientists work on.

The drives, connected to other computers, are stored in locked vaults, with keyless doors that use iris scanners to permit access.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395 or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.