[ISN] Lamo Bumped from NBC After Hacking Them

From: InfoSec News (isnat_private)
Date: Wed Aug 28 2002 - 02:03:29 PDT

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    By Kevin Poulsen 
    Aug 27 2002 
    How did a mediagenic hacker like Adrian Lamo get himself bumped last
    week from a scheduled appearance on the NBC Nightly News with Tom
    Perhaps with his impromptu on-camera intrusion into the peacock
    network's own computers.
    The vagabond hacker known for his drifter lifestyle and his public
    forays into large and poorly-secured corporate intranets sat down at a
    Washington D.C. Kinko's laptop station earlier this month with a
    freelance NBC news producer to show-off his particular style of
    hacking -- the 21-year-old typically uses little more than an ordinary
    browser, possessing an eerie knack for finding undocumented Web
    servers and open proxies at large organizations.
    That method has gotten Lamo deep into the electronic infrastructures
    of such companies as troubled telecom giant Worldcom, Internet portal
    Yahoo, and most recently the New York Times, where last February he
    exploited lax security to tap a database of 3,000 Times op-ed
    contributors, culling such tidbits of information as Robert Redford's
    social-security number, and former president Jimmy Carter's home phone
    number. But unlike most intruders, Lamo eventually goes public with
    his discoveries, and offers to help those he's hacked tighten their
    security pro bono -- an offer that's been accepted by several of his
    corporate targets. So far Lamo's managed to avoid prosecution, though
    federal officials in New York are believed to be investigating him for
    the Times hack.
    Lamo says NBC was taping him at Kinko's while he demonstrated security
    holes in a telecommunications company's systems, when the interviewer
    asked him if he'd be successful hacking NBC.
    Five minutes and one guessed password later and Lamo was surfing the
    television network's private messaging system and an affiliate
    scheduling application that included internal memos and information on
    advertising rates. Screen shots of the hack provided by Lamo and
    reviewed by SecurityFocus Online include a page from an NBC vendor
    database with the network's trademark "living color" peacock and the
    warning, "All information contained on this Web site is to be held in
    the strictest confidence," in all capital letters. "It was a very full
    service system," recalls Lamo.
    The videotaped intrusion was rushed onto the NBC Nightly News
    schedule, where it was slated to run last Thursday. But it was
    abruptly yanked off the schedule at the last minute. NBC News'
    spokesperson didn't return repeated phone calls on the segment, but a
    source close to the production, speaking on condition of anonymity,
    says network lawyers pulled the plug on the Lamo package out of
    concern that NBC might have acted improperly in filming the hacker
    committing computer crimes for the sake of the camera.
    Legal Pitfalls?
    The hacker says he wasn't coerced into doing anything illegal, and
    that he'd have likely wound up at the same Kinko's cracking corporate
    networks even without the camera crew -- an assertion that few who've
    met Lamo would dispute. But former federal computer crime prosecutor
    Matt Yarbrough, now an attorney with Fish & Richardson, says NBC's
    barristers did the right thing anyway, given broad federal conspiracy
    and computer crime laws. "If I was their lawyer, I'd be concerned if
    they were sitting there filming it," says Yarbrough. But the attorney
    adds that spiking the story may not entirely solve the problem.  
    "Arguably, the crime has already taken place whether they air it or
    It's not entirely clear what that crime would be. Other journalists
    (including this reporter) have observed lawbreaking for the purpose of
    reporting on it, and Lamo's intrusion into NBC's systems may not have
    been illegal to begin with, since the producer arguably gave Lamo
    permission to proceed. As for the telecom company, "It's not aiding
    and abetting a crime just because you had an appointment to get
    together and be shown," says Jennifer Granick, director of the Center
    for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. "Apparently, he
    already has access to these systems, so it was something he was able
    to do, and was inclined to do, and the reporter was just watching...  
    Being witness to somebody else breaking the law is not itself a
    But Kelly McBride, an ethics instructor at the Poynter Institute, a
    journalism research center, calls the taping "borderline lawbreaking,"  
    and says NBC News should have checked with their legal department
    before shooting, and found another way to tell the story if necessary.
    "If the journalistic motivation is to show the public how easy it is
    or how vulnerable we all are... it's a good story and it's one of
    holding powerful people accountable," says McBride. "Maybe they should
    have just talked to the lawyers first. It's not like this is so urgent
    that they have to get it on the air, it's not the Pentagon Papers. ...  
    A little front end work to identify the pitfalls would have made it a
    good story."
    For his part, Lamo, who's not known for shrinking from controversy,
    charges the network with a failure of courage. "I can understand where
    they're coming from," says Lamo, in a telephone interview from
    somewhere on the East Coast. "But I like to think that in their place
    I'd take more of a risk."
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