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[ISN] TVA workers reprimanded for alien search
From: InfoSec News (isnc4i.org)
Date: Tue Jun 19 2001 - 03:32:44 CDT
By RICHARD POWELSON, Scripps Howard News Service
(June 18, 2001 03:51 p.m. EDT) - Most employees of the federal
Tennessee Valley Authority focus on power production, but 17 were
caught using office computers for as long as a year to crunch data in
a space alien manhunt.
The federal corporation's inspector general found that the employees'
computers had downloaded software allowing them to help sort through
radio signal data collected from space by the giant Arecibo radio
telescope in Puerto Rico. No proof of intelligent life was found -so
The computer program from the University of California-Berkeley -
SETIhome (The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) - is so
popular that more than 3 million computer users around the world have
downloaded it. TVA's inspector general called it a security breach, a
violation of the agency's written policy and recommended
administrative action against the employees.
All the guilty TVA employees were given warnings that any future
computer security violations could result in dismissal. The program
was deleted from their computers.
Downloading the program provides a flashy screen saver, which is an
image that appears on one's computer after it is idle for a while. The
program gives the university very valuable, free computing time when
the millions of participating volunteers' computers are idle and on.
At TVA, two employees left their computers on constantly and competed
to see who could crunch more data for the alien search. Of the 17
involved, one ran the program only for an hour, while another operated
it up to a year, investigators found.
When each computer finishes a unit of work, the results are sent
automatically over the Internet to the university's central computer.
Phase one of the project, checking billions of radio signals in this
galaxy, is projected to be completed at the end of the year.
Richard Chambers, TVA's inspector general, said: "If you're allowing
others to tap into your computer you have got some additional risk
there" from hackers.
Anthony Smith, a senior manager of the agency's computer system, said
the special program presented "some kind of risk" to their computers.
But he found the program uses a high level of protective encryption so
there was "a relatively low risk."
TVA managers have conducted a computer security awareness campaign
throughout the agency, which is in Knoxville, Tenn., and sells
wholesale power in parts of seven states.
David Anderson, director of the alien research project, said hackers
have never damaged the project's computer system or any computers of
its more than 3 million users the past two years. Invaders one time
tricked the university's Web page into providing them e-mail addresses
of the alien searchers, which resulted in mischievous e-mail messages
But he said that security loophole has been plugged.
What kind of person downloads the search program for alien radio
signals? Most apparently are science-fiction buffs, according to a
survey on the university's Web site.
Of the 93,000 who responded, 94 percent believe there is life outside
Nearly 6 percent believe aliens would be hostile to Earth's residents;
58 percent are "not sure," and 36 percent predicted they would be
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