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IT Whodunnit: 911 computer system breach pinned on Pa. coroner

He allegedly let reporters use his password and log-in

By Todd R. Weiss
February 9, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A Pennsylvania coroner has been charged with giving illegal access to a county 911 computer system to local newspaper reporters who then allegedly used his username and password to access a confidential law enforcement Web site for information for their news stories.

Lancaster County, Pa., coroner G. Gary Kirchner, 73, was charged Monday by the Pennsylvania attorney general's office in connection with the incidents, which allegedly occurred between 2004 and 2005.

"Publicizing confidential law enforcement information can compromise official investigations and jeopardize the safety of witnesses or citizens who file complaints," Attorney General Tom Corbett said in a statement. "Dr. Kirchner breached the security of the 911 Web site and violated the public trust in order to help a small group of reporters gain an edge over competing media outlets."

The incidents were discovered after a county police detective read a story on a murder in the Aug. 22, 2005, edition of the Intelligencer Journal, the morning newspaper in Lancaster, Pa., according to a 19-page report (download PDF) from a county grand jury that reviewed the case. The story attributed details about the murder to the county's 911 Web site, which had public and private, police-only sections. The detective was surprised to see details about the murder probe in the paper that were only supposed to be available in the secure police-only section of the site.

A 911 center supervisor later warned police of a possible breach of the site and a county IT worker checked logs for the site, according to the grand jury report. That review found log-in information for some Web site visits that used Kirchner's username and password from IP addresses traced to computers used by reporters at the newspaper. The grand jury report said Kirchner gave his log-in information to a reporter at the paper, who then apparently shared it with four others who covered police news.

Kirchner has denied giving the log-in information to anyone, according to the grand jury report.

An IT department inquiry showed that the private, official section of the 911 Web site was allegedly accessed from IP addresses used by the newspaper 57 times. Those site visits, between Aug. 7, 2005 and Aug. 21, 2005, used Kirchner's username and password, according to the grand jury.

The confidential site includes warnings telling users that they are entering a secure government computer system and that unauthorized access may result in criminal prosecution, according to the grand jury. A series of related e-mails between the reporters and the coroner about the use of the site was also detailed in the grand jury report.

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