US agents use 'wiretap' to trap Argentine hacker

April 12, 1996

American investigators have used a "computer wiretap" to catch an Argentine university student charged with hacking into United States military data, writes Jon Marcus.

Government agents got permission from a judge to eavesdrop on a Harvard University computer that allegedly was used by 22-year-old Julio Cesar Ardita of Buenos Aires as a platform to gain access to military information.

It was the first time a hacker has been tracked down using a court-ordered wiretap on a computer network, US Attorney General Janet Reno said.

Reno's lieutenant who handled the case, US Attorney Donald Stern, called it "a glimpse of what computer crime-fighting will look like in the coming years" and Reno herself described the episode as "an example of how the Fourth Amendment and a court order can be used to protect rights while adapting to modern technology."

The Fourth Amendment to the US constitution prohibits unreasonable searches of private property. Some civil rights activists, however, complained that tapping into a computer network violates the privacy of other users who are innocent of any crime.

Government officials said Ardita stole passwords from some of the 16,500 legitimate users of the university's computer system and also successfully infiltrated computers at the California Institute of Technology, the University of Massachusetts and Northeastern University and schools in South Korea, Mexico, Taiwan, Chile and Brazil.

Ardita would be charged with illegal computer entry if he returned to the United States, but he cannot be extradited.

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