JERUSALEM — When Ehud Tenenbaum was arrested on suspicion of hacking his way into Pentagon and other sensitive computer systems, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was openly admiring of the young Israeli, lauding his skills as "damn good."
Netanyahu added that the 18-year-old was "dangerous too." But the Israeli prime minister's praise made an instant celebrity of a young man suspected of leading the most serious attack on the Pentagon's computers and breaking into as many as 700 sites worldwide.
Netanyahu is among many Israelis who have reacted to the news of Tenenbaum's alleged exploits with a mixture of national pride and amused approbation. The teenager, known throughout Israel as the "Analyzer"--his Internet nickname--has received dozens of requests for media interviews and book and movie deals, along with several job offers.
Tenenbaum has even been featured in a full-page computer advertisement in Yediot Aharonot, Israel's largest newspaper. He gazes pensively at the reader next to the slogan "To go far, you need the best tools." In exchange for making the brazen ad for EIM, an Israeli computer supply firm, the alleged hacker received a powerful new computer to replace the one confiscated by Israeli police upon his arrest.
"He's become a folk hero," said Dror Feuer, editor of the Haaretz newspaper's weekly technology supplement. "People see him as the outlaw of our time, and they really like the fact that this little Israeli went up against the big guys--the Pentagon."
Illegality Pointed Out
But others are not amused, either by Tenenbaum's alleged activities or by Israel's image of him.
"These people are the cancer of the Internet," said William Zane, whose Santa Rosa, Calif.-based network service company, NetDex, was apparently used as a launch pad to attack hundreds of other computers. "They're nasty little people who have diminished the real flow of information and free speech on the Internet. What they've done is unethical and illegal, and for people like Netanyahu and others to make jokes about it is just terribly unfortunate."
The FBI sent agents to Israel last month to join in the questioning of the teenager, who has not been charged but remains under investigation, according to Israeli and U.S. officials. The FBI says Tenenbaum is believed to have coached two Cloverdale, Calif., teenagers in what Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre described as the "most organized and systematic attack" to date on Pentagon systems.
Hamre said the hackers did not gain access to the Pentagon's classified computer networks, which have extensive security. But during a three-week period in February, they entered unclassified networks, including databases for payroll and personnel information, Hamre said in a March 25 interview with the U.S. military newspaper European Stars and Stripes.
Hamre told the newspaper that the systematic attack, with its overseas link, was especially worrisome because it occurred just as the Clinton administration was preparing for a possible military assault on Iraq, raising concerns of a connection to foreign governments or even "cyber-terrorists."
Although the fear appears to have been unfounded in this case, Hamre said he was visiting Europe to consult key allies about the threat posed by such intrusions and to seek help in ensuring that shared North Atlantic Treaty Organization computer systems remain secure.
Investigators say Tenenbaum's targets also included NASA, several U.S. Air Force and Navy systems, many U.S. universities and federally funded research sites such as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In Israel, he reportedly tapped into computers belonging to President Ezer Weizman, the Israeli parliament and Palestinian extremist organizations. He later boasted to friends that he had destroyed the site belonging to the militant Islamic group Hamas.
He also is reported to have tried to infiltrate the Israeli army's classified files. If so, Tenenbaum is unlikely to find himself using his computer skills during his own mandatory military service, which began this month. Earlier, Tenenbaum's lawyer had suggested that the army might wish to take advantage of his client's talents to hack, perhaps, into Syrian intelligence systems.
Little Damage Done
In most instances, Tenenbaum and his partners, who are both minors, appear to have done relatively little damage to the computers and networks they entered, according to sources close to the investigation. For the most part, the hackers simply browsed the files without changing their content, often searching for passwords that would allow them to notch yet another unauthorized entry on their belts.
But even if the teenagers did not tamper with the information they found, the managers of several hacked systems said the break-ins forced them to either scrap every file that could have been compromised or painstakingly check them all for flaws.