Journalist cleared of computer crime

Computer case journalist cleared
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The Independent Online

A "whistleblower" who helped the Independent expose a serious security breach at British Telecom was cleared yesterday of illegally breaking into the company's main computer system.

In a decision that safeguards a journalist's right to receive secret computer information from sources, a stipendiary magistrate in Middlesbrough found that Nigel Mahomet, a former BT engineer, had no case to answer. A similar charge against John Arlidge, the Independent's Scotland Correspondent, was dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service. Both had been charged with unauthorised access under the 1990 Computer Misuse Act.

The action, which could have made it illegal for journalists to receive computer information from sources not authorised to access it, was being seen as a test case. Last night, BT said it was "disappointed" and would be examining procedures "to see whether use of this Act can ever be justified ... in future".

Mr Mahomet, 41, from Darlington, was dismissed last April after a BT investigation identified him as the mole who helped the newspaper prove that unauthorised BT employees and temporary workers had access to addresses and phone numbers for hundreds of security, military and government installations including MI5 and 2MI6 offices, nuclear bunkers, missile sites - and even John Major's private line into 10 Downing Street.

The maximum penalty under section one of the Act is six months' imprisonment or a pounds 5,000 fine.

Mr Mahomet, who served in the Royal Signals Regiment for 18 years, including four tours in Northern Ireland - one with the bomb disposal squad - contacted the Independent last November after BT rejected the newspaper's claims of a security breach.

Yesterday, stipendiary mag-istrate Michael James was told by both sides that Mr Mahomet was authorised to access the BT computer and had his own password and authorisation code. Arguments between the prosecution and defence centred on whether that entitled him to access the computer after work to show sensitive information to Mr Arlidge.

Keith Simpson, prosecuting, argued that Mr Mahomet's authorisation effectively ended when he clocked off at 4pm on 25 November last year, shortly before meeting Mr Arlidge and taking him into BT's office in Middlesbrough.

Geoffrey Robertson QC, for the defence, said he did not doubt that the company would have regarded Mr Mahomet's actions as "unauthorised" in terms of their relationship with him, but he remained authorised under the Act.

Finding no case to answer for Mr Mahomet, Mr James said his decision was based purely on the definition within the Act, and not on how the ordinary man in the street might view it.