Large Hadron Collider's Hacker Infiltration Highlights Vulnerabilities

A team of hackers exposed weaknesses in the historic project.

ByABC News
September 15, 2008, 9:52 AM

Sept. 15, 2008— -- Though the Large Hadron Collider's infiltration by hackers did not disrupt the historic project, experts warn that its computer systems are vulnerable -- though at least their exploitation won't destroy Earth. Shortly after physicists activated the Collider on Wednesday, hackers identifying themselves as Group 2600 of the Greek Security Team accessed computers connected to the Compact Muon Solenoid detector, one of four key subsystems responsible for monitoring the collisions of protons speeding around the 18-mile track near Geneva, Switzerland.

A few scientists had worried that the experiment could inadvertently create a planet-swallowing black hole. Physicists called this impossible, or at least extraordinarily unlikely. But the hack raises a different sort of worst-case scenario: the largest and most complicated science experiment in history, intended to reveal basic information about the composition of matter, derailed by malevolent intruders.

"The LHC experiments have very complex computer systems for data recording and analysis and even more sensitive systems for experiment control, trigger and data acquisition," said MIT physicist and Collider collaborator Frank Taylor. "You could imagine that penetrating the 'real time domain' could have catastrophic consequences."

The hackers were stopped before they could access the Collider's central computer system, but were described by the Telegraph as being "one step away" from full control of the CMS. They deleted one as-yet publicly unidentified file -- the hacker equivalent, perhaps, of counting coup.

"We're pulling your pants down because we don't want to see you running around naked looking to hide yourselves when the panic comes," wrote the intruders in a note left on the Collider's website."There seems to be no harm done. From what [the computer security team] can tell, it was someone making the point that CMS was hackable," said James Gillies, spokesman for Cern, to the Telegraph. Computer security at the Collider has received less attention than other aspects of the historic experiment, but insiders have previously expressed concern.