Hackers given six months for 'intellectual joyriding': Judge says jail sentences inevitable to deter others 'similarly tempted'

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The Independent Online
TWO COMPUTER hackers given six-month prison sentences yesterday were the first to be jailed under legislation, passed in 1990, to outlaw the practice.

Neil Woods, 24, and Karl Strickland, 22, had pleaded guilty to the offences. In March, Paul Bedworth, a Yorkshire schoolboy who regularly communicated with Woods and Strickland, and was arrested at the same time, was cleared of similar charges by a jury after a 15-day trial. He had pleaded not guilty and claimed that he had become addicted to hacking.

All three were trapped by sophisticated police and British Telecom telephone tracking in several countries. Before the 1990 Computer Misuse Act, those who gained access to other people's computer networks had to be prosecuted for causing damage or stealing information, but in the case which ended yesterday the judge accepted that the accused had not been intending to cause damage, and had not profited in any way.

Sentencing the two graduates at Southwark Crown Court, Judge Michael Harris said: 'I have to mark your conduct with prison sentences, both to penalise you for what you have done and for the losses caused, and to deter others who might be similarly tempted.'

The offences were committed over three years before and after the 1990 Act was passed. Strickland, a research assistant at Liverpool University, and Woods, of Chadderton, Oldham, Greater Manchester, a computer salesman and computer science graduate from Manchester University, pleaded guilty to conspiring to obtain telegraphic services dishonestly, and engaging in the unauthorised publication of computer information.

Woods also admitted causing pounds 15,000 of damage to a computer owned by the then Polytechnic of Central London.

The two did not meet until after their arrests in June 1991, although they 'spoke' on screen under their codenames. Among hackers, Woods was known as 'Pad', and Strickland as 'Gandalf' (the wizard in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings). Using personal computers at home, they were frequent illegal users of a BT network called PSS, and a system known as 'Janet', which linked academic institutions throughout Britain.

Strickland's hi-tech conquests included the United States space agency Nasa and ITN's Oracle network - since replaced by Teletext. Woods keyed into systems run by the Ministry of Defence, the European Community and the Financial Times.

Counsel for both men agreed that their clients, who received their first computers when they were 11 years old, became 'obsessed' with them.

'If your passion had been cars rather than computers we would have called your conduct delinquent, and I don't shrink from the analogy of describing what you were doing as intellectual joyriding,' the judge said.

He went on: 'There may be people out there who consider hacking to be harmless, but hacking is not harmless. Computers now form a central role in our lives, containing personal details, financial details, confidential matters of companies and government departments and many business organisations.

'Some, providing emergency services, depend on their computers to deliver those services. It is essential that the integrity of those systems should be protected and hacking puts that integrity into jeopardy.'

He said that hackers needed to be given a 'clear signal' by the courts that their activities 'will not and cannot be tolerated'.

The judge added that he had hesitated long and hard before sending two young men to jail. Although there were powerful factors in their favour, prison for them was inevitable, he said.

Detective Sergeant Barry Donovan, formerly attached to Scotland Yard's computer crimes squad, said that since the publicity surrounding the arrest of Woods and Strickland, the amount of hacking in Britain had decreased dramatically, although it was still an international problem.

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