A 15-year-old with a PC hacked NASA in 1999

11:02 AM Jul 25, 2021 | Team Udayavani |
The teen, who earned himself a spot in the hacker hall of fame after penetrating into US Dept. of Defense and NASA computers, also became the first juvenile hacker sentenced to serve prison time.
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In 1999, a 15-year-old Florida teen used his skills as a hacker to intercept data from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency or DTRA (a division of the US Dept. Of Defense). He had access to over 3,000 messages, usernames, and passwords of DTRA employees.


This act of is earned him a spot in the hacker hall of fame.

Jonathan James, who operated under the internet name “c0mrade,” also obtained source code for the International Space Station (to control temperature humidity).

NASA was forced to shut down computers for three weeks to fix the problem at an estimated cost of $41,000.

Jonathan was not only recognized for his high-profile hack at such a tender age but he also became the first juvenile hacker sentenced to serve prison time. The majority of Jonathan’s hacking occurred between late August and October of 1999 when he breached various systems including telecommunications giant Bellsouth and the Miami-Dade school system.


What really earned Jonathan the spot in the hacker hall of fame was his invasion of computers used by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), a division of the U.S. Department of Defense tasked with monitoring threats from nuclear, biological, chemical, conventional and special weapons.

He later confessed to the Justice Department, that he had installed a backdoor into a computer server in Dulles, Virginia, through which he was able to intercept more than 3,300 email messages from DTRA employees and at least 19 user names and passwords.

Jonathan was quoted saying, “They lack some serious computer security, and the hard part is learning it. I know Unix and C like the back of my hand, because I studied all these books, and I was on the computer for so long. But the hard part isn’t getting in. It’s learning to know what it is that you’re doing,” as the government didn’t take too many measures for security on most of their computers back then.

He was able to enter 13 computers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where he stole data and downloaded $1.7 million in NASA proprietary software used to support the International Space Station’s physical environment, including control of the temperature and humidity within the living quarters.

This ultimately resulted in, NASA being forced to shut down their computers for three weeks to check and repair the system at an estimated cost of $41,000.

On January 26, 2000, Agents from the Department of Defense and NASA, in conjunction with local authorities, raided Jonathan’s house.  He was ultimately sentenced when he was 16 -­ but it just goes to show what a 15-year old in South Florida, sitting with a computer and the right set of skills can do.

Jonathan was sentenced to seven months of house arrest and probation until he turned 18. When he violated his probation by testing positive for drugs, he was taken into custody by the U.S Marshals Service and served six months at a federal correctional facility in Alabama.

Being a juvenile defendant, Jonathan likely would have remained anonymous, but his father, Robert, a computer systems analyst, released his son’s name (with a hint of pride) after he pleaded guilty.

In an interview with The Miami Herald, Robert said, “I’ve been in computers for 20 years, and I can’t do what he was doing,” further added, “I didn’t do anything destructive.”

Jonathan said he could have easily gotten away with his crimes if he had bothered to cover his tracks, but he took no measures to hide because he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong.

Jonathan said that he was just “playing around” and didn’t do anything to harm the Department of Defense and NASA systems.

The story of the young hacker came to an end came in 2008, when he committed suicide after being accused of conspiring with other hackers to steal massive amounts of personal and credit card information from department store chain TJX and other prominent retailers. While he believed he would be prosecuted for this crime, he denied any involvement.


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