Department of De-engineering

Mad Science Project Hijacks Telecom Network

by / December 31, 1998
He might have looked like a normal 28-year-old computer consultant, but when Aaron Blosser went to do a job for the local phone company last spring, the mad scientist within took control.

"I've worked on this problem for a long time," Blosser told the Denver Post. "When I started working at US West, all that computational power was just too tempting for me."

Blosser's "problem" was with the seductive lure of prime numbers -- quantities that can't be divided by any numbers except themselves and one. There are 37 of them known to man, and the 37th is more than 900,000 digits long. The quest for the elusive 38th, which has long bedeviled desperate math freaks, requires very large computers.

That's exactly what Blosser found at the Baby Bell -- 2,585 in all, perfect for a little late-night searching while the processors were idle.

While running up 10.63 years of computer processing time, Blosser also brought US West's directory assistance function to a standstill. Computers that usually located phone number requests in three seconds took more than five minutes. The slowdown was so massive that the company was nearly forced to shut down its Phoenix service center, the Post reported.

Now US West is pressing maximum charges, and Blosser is under FBI investigation for computer fraud.

As the numbers get bigger, new prime numbers become harder to find, necessitating more and more gigaflops of computing power. "The problem is, there is no formula for finding prime numbers. You have to test each number," Jim Meiss, math professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told the Post.

Blosser is not the only freak around. There are hard-core prime-number fetishists who call themselves the Great Internet Marsenne Prime Search (GIMPS, for short). Named after French monk Marin Marsenne, who wrote a prominent early treatise on prime numbers, GIMPS collectively controls 200 gigaflops of computing power -- about seven high-end supercomputers' worth, reports the New Scientist. This kind of power has enabled them to find the three largest prime numbers so far.

Blosser remotely installed a program called NT Prime on computers throughout US West's system to search for his beloved numerals. Along the way he cracked passwords for 15,000 workstations, the Post reported. The program was only supposed to affect U.S. West's computers when their main processors were idle. The computers would take the information they had gleaned and report it to Blosser's Web site.

Reality was quite different. Utter chaos reigned when Blosser's program kicked in, grinding several units of US West to a near standstill. For weeks, no one could figure out the source of the trouble. Blosser himself was apparently unaware that his efforts were severely gumming up the pipes.

A US West Intrusion Response Team discovered that some program having nothing to do with telecommunications was disrupting the computer system's usual data flow. They traced it back to Blosser's computer in US West's Littleton, Colo., offices, and when officials confronted him, he immediately fessed up to the stunt.

Blosser, whose computer was confiscated in a home search, is claiming moral innocence.

"I didn't hack in or anything. I used my own name and password," he said, according to the New Scientist. But US West counters that Blosser forgot that bit about asking permission.

Reprinted with permission from


Percentage of Students who use a Computer at Home or School, and Why:
-- Source: U.S. Dept. of Education, National Center for Education Statistics' "National Assessment of Educational Progress" Web
4th Grade 1984

Play Games 71.8

Learn 67.9

Write papers/stories 23.4

11th Grade 1984

Play Games 76.7

Learn 54.6

Write papers/stories 18.8


Random Access | By Brian McDonough