Jonathan Joseph James – The first juvenile sentenced federally to a term of confinement for computer hacking operating under the handle C0mrade, James hacked into NASA and Defense Department computers for fun. Among other trophies, he penetrated the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and downloaded the proprietary environmental control software for the International Space Station — the programming that controlled the temperature and humidity in the station’s living space. James was sentenced to six months of house arrest — a sentence applauded by then-Attorney General Janet Reno — followed by probation.
“I was just looking around, playing around. What was fun for me was a challenge to see what I could pull off.”
James’ major intrusions targeted high-profile organizations. He installed a backdoor into a Defense Threat Reduction Agency server. The DTRA is an agency of the Department of Defense charged with reducing the threat to the U.S. and its allies from nuclear, biological, chemical, conventional and special weapons. The backdoor he created enabled him to view sensitive emails and capture employee user names and passwords.
“The government didn’t take too many measures for security on most of their computers,” James told PBS’s Frontline at the time. “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.”
James also cracked into NASA computers, stealing software worth approximately $1.7 million. According to the Department of Justice, “The software supported the International Space Station’s physical environment, including control of the temperature and humidity within the living space.” NASA was forced to shut down its computer systems, ultimately racking up a $41,000 cost. James explained that he downloaded the code to supplement his studies on C programming, but contended, “The code itself was crappy . . . certainly not worth $1.7 million like they claimed.”
On May 18, 2008, C0mrade took his own lifeafter Secret Service agents accused him of being part of the conspiracy responsible for the largest identity theft in U.S. history. He was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his home on May 18, 2008, less than two weeks after agents raided his house in connection with a hacking ring that penetrated TJX, DSW and OfficeMax, among others. In a five page suicide note, James wrote that he was innocent, but was certain federal officials would make him a scapegoat.
“I have no faith in the ‘justice’ system,” he wrote. “Perhaps my actions today, and this letter, will send a stronger message to the public. Either way, I have lost control over this situation, and this is my only way to regain control.”
James’ father remembers his son as a passionate computer geek, who started playing with the family PC at the age of 6, and switched his own computer from Windows to Linux in middle school. Prior to the NASA raid in January 2000, Robert James and his wife would frequently battle their son over his computer use, which would stretch late into the night.
At one point, the senior James took away his son’s computer; the boy, then 13, promptly ran away from home, and phoned his mother to declare he wouldn’t return unless he got his PC back. His parents tracked him to the Borders Books down the street.
Robert James chuckles when he recalls the story. “So, yeah, he kind of liked computers.”