Terror Watch: At Work--The Patriot Act

Attempting to highlight uses of the USA Patriot Act, the Justice Department has disclosed new details about a bizarre "cyberattack" on the U.S. government's South Pole research station. Officials say that Eastern European hackers penetrated the station's computer system and threatened to sell research data to a foreign government.

The South Pole cyberattack, which has gotten little public attention, has been previously cited by the FBI as a prime example of the growing problem of computer crime, as well as the bureau's aggressive efforts to combat it.

But in a new report released this week by Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Justice Department for the first time described the South Pole attack as a "cyberterrorist" threat. The 29-page report also linked the cracking of the case, as well as many other mostly unheralded prosecutions, to the new powers provided by the Patriot Act--part of a broader push by the Bush White House to build support for renewal of the controversial counterterrorism law in the face of continued criticism from civil-liberties groups and others.

The case first arose in May 2003 when the National Science Foundation's U.S. Antarctic Program received an e-mail that stated, "I've hacked into the server of your South Pole Research Station. Pay me off, or I will sell the station's data to another country and tell the world how vulnerable you are." The e-mail contained data found only on South Pole station's computers, prompting scientists to conclude the hacker had indeed penetrated the station's computers and that the threat was real.

It also spurred brief concern that the 50 scientists then at the station might be endangered since the hacked computer controlled the life-support system for the entire South Pole facility, according to the Justice report. The computer attack took place at the onset of the Antarctic winter in which temperatures drop to 70 degrees below zero. No aircraft would have been able to land at the South Pole for another six months and the scientists could theoretically been stranded, according to the Justice report.

In fact, an FBI official said today, FBI officials quickly concluded that the South Pole station's "critical infrastructure" support systems were not endangered. But FBI cybercrime agents moved quickly to unravel the plot. According to the Justice report and an FBI official, agents used a little-known provision of the Patriot Act that allowed them to immediately obtain normally confidential data from Internet service providers in emergencies--without a court subpoena. That helped them to trace the e-mail to two young hackers at a cybercafe in Romania; the hackers had, just a few weeks earlier, allegedly been involved in a credit-card extortion plot that was being investigated by the FBI's office in Mobile, Ala. The two men were arrested in June 2003 and are now in jail, facing prosecution by Romanian authorities.

The Justice report, entitled "Report From the Field: The USA Patriot Act at Work," portrayed the emergency Internet provision of the Patriot Act, known as Section 212, as critical to cracking the case. "Section 212 was invaluable in swiftly resolving a cyber-terrorist threat to the South Pole Research Station," the report states. The report also cites several other cases in which the provision purportedly was key, including a case involving the abduction of a 13-year-old girl from western Pennsylvania who had been lured to meet a 38-year-old man in Herndon, Va., during an online chat.

But others familiar with the South Pole case say it is unlikely that the Patriot Act would have made that much difference; bureau agents, they say, would have had no trouble getting the Internet service provider records with a normal subpoena and the National Science Foundation, as a federally funded entity, would have had no reason not to voluntarily cooperate with the FBI by turning over records. "I don't know how the Patriot Act came up in this," says Peter West, a spokesman for the NSF.

In addition, the portrayal of the South Pole case as cyberterrorism met with some skepticism from scientists. The actual data from the South Pole station that could have been downloaded by the cyberattackers was almost entirely highly technical astrophysics research--mostly about cosmic radiation. "Its value on the open market is negligible," West said.

But Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said the Internet-service provision of the Patriot Act was still crucial in this and many other cases being prosecuted by Justice. "In terrorism cases, it's about speed. In a lot of these cases, you're talking about life and death. This is about saving lives."