US Navy denies wrongdoing in UK charity's hacking claim

The US Navy has admitted that a member of its staff may have tried to enter a secure area of a UK charity's Web site, but is claiming the access attempt was not illegal and was instead a case of 'curious Web browsing.' But the organisation, which believes the access attempt constitutes hacking, isn't satisfied with the Navy's response and may still decide to pursue legal action against it.

The US Navy has admitted that a member of its staff may have tried to enter a secure area of a UK charity's Web site, but is claiming the access attempt was not illegal and was instead a case of "curious Web browsing."

But the organisation, which believes the access attempt constitutes hacking, isn't satisfied with the Navy's response and may still decide to pursue legal action against it, Fran Clarke, a spokeswoman at the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society said this week.

The WDCS, based in Bath, England, raised a public uproar in May over what it claims was an attempted break-in to its Web site by US Navy personnel. During a routine monitoring of site traffic, the charity's site-hosting company, Merchant Technology Ltd., found that a user identified as donhqns1.hq.navy.mil was trying to access a secure area of the Web site.

The Navy responded by sending a letter, on Aug. 7, via the U.S. Embassy in London, claiming that the Navy did not break any laws in its attempt to access this area of the site.

Capt. James A. Mader of the US Navy defended the access attempt in the letter as "curious Web browsing" and said it constituted "no evidence of a violation of either British or United States law."

WDCS believes that the Navy wanted to find information about the trade of Russian military-trained dolphins from the Black Sea -- a subject on which the charity recently published a report. The US Navy had contacted the organisation at an earlier date asking for information from the report, but WDCS said they would have to wait until the report was published on its Web site.

While the charity is concerned solely with the welfare of the dolphins being traded in what it believes are inhumane conditions, the Navy may have been interested in finding out about the animals for military intelligence reasons, Clarke said. The Navy, however, has made no statement about what it may have been looking for on the Web site.

When WDCS found out that the U.S. Navy had attempted to enter the secure area of its site, it filed a complaint against the government body. The U.S. Navy in turn initiated a formal investigation through the Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS), which concluded that no illegal activity had taken place, according to Mader's letter.

During the course of the Navy's investigation, which ended July 27, the Navy asked Scotland Yard to get access logs for the WDCS site from Merchant Technology. Meanwhile, the Information Systems Security Officer at U.S. Navy headquarters was asked to troll the Navy's system logs to identify the computer from which the attempted entry into the restricted area originated, Mader said. But because the connection attempt was unsuccessful, the Navy said it had no record.

However, WDCS is not satisfied with the outcome of the Navy investigation and is currently consulting with various advisors to come up with its next plan of action, Clarke said.

"We certainly believe that somebody did try to get into the site's security system -- they [the US Navy] don't deny this," Clarke said. The question now is whether that attempt was legal or not, she said.

"We don't know why the Pentagon wanted to break in, but we don't want it to happen again."

More information on the WDCS can be found at http://www.wdcs-shop.com/

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