Detectives have shelved an investigation into the high-profile hacking of computers at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU).
The so-called Climategate attack led to 1,079 messages and more than 3,800 documents being leaked online in November 2009. Critics of the unit’s work seized upon the messages to suggest the team had misled the public and scientific community about its research into climate change, a charge scientists at the CRU were quick to deny.
A subsequent parliamentary study cleared the boffins of misconduct although mildly criticised their lack of transparency and sharing of data.
The question of who was behind the hack prompted almost as many conspiracy theories as the debate on global warming. Norfolk police were called in to investigate the breach, however two years into probe the force has admitted it’s hit a dead end. There is little prospect of making any arrests before the three-year statute of limitation expires for the offences at the centre of the case, the cops admitted.
In a statement, Detective Superintendent Julian Gregory, the senior investigating officer, said:
Despite detailed and comprehensive enquiries, supported by experts in this field, the complex nature of this investigation means that we do not have a realistic prospect of identifying the offender or offenders and launching criminal proceedings within the time constraints imposed by law.The international dimension of investigating the World Wide Web especially has proved extremely challenging.
However, as a result of our enquiries, we can say that the data breach was the result of a sophisticated and carefully orchestrated attack on the CRU’s data files, carried out remotely via the internet. The offenders used methods common in unlawful internet activity to obstruct enquiries.
DS Gregory was at least able to dismiss early speculation that the hack might be an inside job.
“There is no evidence to suggest that anyone working at or associated with the University of East Anglia was involved in the crime,” he said. The investigation, codenamed Operation Cabin, was backed by computer crime specialists from the Metropolitan Police.
In a statement, the vice-chancellor of the university and the unit’s boss together the expressed disappointment that police effort had failed to apprehend a culprit. Prof Phil Jones, research director of the CRU, vowed to continue his work.
Prof Jones said: “I would like to thank the police for their work on this difficult investigation and also for the personal support they offered me. I am obviously disappointed that no one has been prosecuted for this crime but hope today’s announcement will draw a line under the stressful events of the last two and half years. My colleagues and I remain committed to the research CRU undertakes to illuminate the globally important issue of climate change.”
An analysis of the possible hacking techniques used to pull off the Climategate breach, and steps used to anonymously upload the swiped data, can be found in a blog post by Rob Graham of Errata Security here. The article, written in the days immediately after the data raid, stated that the hacker used “open proxies” to disguise his or her identity, and took issue with the conclusion that the techniques used were sophisticated.
What’s not in dispute is that the trail to the Climategate hacker has long since gone cold.
Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant at net security firm Sophos, commented: “Unless someone associated with the hack owns up to their involvement, it seems that the story of Climategate may remain a mystery.” ®
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