05/11/98- Updated 10:37 AM ET

Are NASA computers safe from hackers?

WASHINGTON - Agents from the National Security Agency will try to break into NASA's computers to determine whether the space agency can fend off cyber-intruders who could threaten launch-control and other critical operations, the trade publication Defense Week reports.

The ''penetration study'' of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's unclassified computer networks is an effort to learn how easily troublemakers can get to sensitive data and what NASA's doing about it.

Teams from the intelligence agency will soon try to penetrate NASA networks in up to eight states, said the newsletter in Monday's edition.

Last June, NSA ''hackers'' showed they could cripple Pacific Command battle-management computers and U.S. electric power grids.

The NASA ''penetration study,'' which will be run under the auspices of the General Accounting Office, stands out because it involves a U.S. civilian agency, and such operations are barred by the 1952 law that created NSA, the newsletter said.

However, the law barring domestic activities contains an exception if the spy agency is invited to do the work.

Still, the publication said the planned test raised questions of privacy.

John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, a veteran observer of both NASA and the intelligence community, told the newsletter that the NASA test breaks new ground and bears close watching.

''This is the next big step in NSA's expanding role in domestic information security,'' he said. ''It's certainly the first reported major initiative of this sort with respect to a non-military agency. While a number of safeguards are in place, there are concerns about the potential for abuse of this type of activity.''

But Charles Redmond, the space agency's manager of information-technology security, said the test was ''not an invasion of privacy.''

NASA preferred to have the intelligence agency do the tests because it wanted to protect security and proprietary data and to avoid any conflict of interest, Redmond said.

The tests will determine how easy it is to access sensitive sites and whether they can be accessed through the Internet.

By The Associated Press

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