It's All on the Web

All it took was a few computer keystrokes to find labeled diagrams of the core of the nation's second-highest-power university reactor, along with its day-by-day operation schedule and photos of the facility from the street level and above.

When we arrived at the MIT reactor, we already knew the fuel in its core was scheduled to be nearing the peak of its radioactivity. We knew the dimensions of the concrete wall our guides were about to lead us through. We had even seen satellite photos of the reactor.

All this from a visit to the MIT Web page.

And, thanks to a quick visit to an MIT library, we had downloaded information that hadn't been available from our personal computers, including detailed floor plans of the reactor and adjoining building from a Web site -- no ID or computer logon required.

Even more than most university Web sites, MIT's pages burst with information. And once information is on the Web, we found, it isn't always easy to take it off.

After 9/11, MIT made some dramatic changes to its Web site, removing a few of the most detailed reactor diagrams and replacing them with other information, including, briefly, a press release describing the reactor's many medical applications and details about the dimensions of its concrete shield.

But we easily found previous versions of the MIT site available at other places on the Internet, including the one with the detailed diagrams that MIT had intentionally removed.

MIT could have removed at least some of the previous versions of its Web page from the Internet. According to one Web site where we found the cached page, any site's proprietor can ask that its old versions not be displayed.

Of course, MIT's administrators could still do this.

But that page is just one of many similar services on the World Wide Web. Even if MIT, or any other university that may have posted potentially dangerous information online, were to revamp its Web site and try to have previous versions of its site removed, the information could still exist somewhere in cyberspace. There's no simple way to tell.

Experts say that the information we obtained, and how we obtained it, would be no surprise to terrorists.

"Terrorists are smart people," said Ronald E. Timm, a veteran security consultant who has analyzed the vulnerability of the nation's nuclear laboratories for the Department of Energy. "I don't think we're telling them anything they didn't know," he added.

"What you did probably doesn't even begin to dent the capabilities that they've got in order to get that information, whether it's through personal interviews or finding written material," he said.