Trial haunted by images of life in the twilight zone: In the hacking underworld, Paul Bedworth was an unlikely villain. Susan Watts reports

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The Independent Online
THE IMAGE of the hacker hunched over his microcomputer in a darkened bedroom haunted the trial of Paul Bedworth. The thrill of cracking another computer, having a sniff round, maybe leaving a few electronic footprints, the chance to boast to other hackers.

Yet, somehow over the period of the 16-day Southwark Crown Court 'show trial', as the defence described it, the scrawny, wan 19-year-old has always seemed an unlikely villain.

The jury, only the second in Britain to deal with a computer hacker, was faced with a young man whose best friends were people he only chatted with via his screen in an electronic underworld; someone who told a psychiatrist that he would rather spend two hours with a computer than with a person.

The defence did not contest the facts but asked the jury to decide whether Paul Bedworth was bad or ill. He has admitted gaining access to many computers, not just in Britain. He caused panic among systems managers whose machines began to behave strangely, running up mysterious telephone bills. Some had to take their computers out of operation to check that data was secure.

But, the question posed by the defence was whether Mr Bedworth was driven by a compulsive obsession with computers so overpowering that it prevented him from forming criminal intent. Did he have the 'guilty mind' necessary for the jury to convict?

All three charges faced by Mr Bedworth were couched as 'conspiracies'. But, the defence asked, can conversations with other teengers over computer chat lines really be said to constitute a conspiracy, or was Mr Bedworth operating largely alone, and just swapping the odd tit-bit of information with modern-day pen pals?

At 11, he joined his local computer club in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, but soon got bored swapping games. Once he acquired a modem he found that he could 'talk' to a world outside his bedroom. He started hacking proper at about 14, using the BBC microcomputer his mother had bought him for his birthday. At the time, hacking was not illegal - it only became so with the advent of the 1990 Computer Misuse Act.

He began to hop around bulletin boards - electronic message points - with weird, fantasy names like 'Tiger's lair' and 'Lucifer'. He used passwords stuck on travel agents' desks to gain access to computerised holiday booking forms but quickly moved on to more challenging targets, gaining access to bigger and more powerful machines, often 'borrowing' the names of legitimate users and their passwords.

His prime goal, after getting into a computer, was to gain privileged 'super-user' or 'root' status. This gave him equality with the systems manager, and meant that he could change any file on the computer. In common with other hackers, he would 'hop' from one computer to another. Most of the time, he would be billed only for one local telephone call. Once he got into a machine, the organisation that owned it would bear the cost of onward calls to successive computers.

Once inside, his BBC micro became a keyboard - operating a distant computer with vastly more power and sophistication. He made no financial gains and claims not to have tampered with the data on the systems he entered. He admits, however, that he placed his programs into some of the computers.

Scotland Yard's specialist Computer Crimes Unit was alerted by European Commission computer staff. The police had already been tipped off about a hacker called 'Wandii', and discovered that he was using a computer at Leeds polytechnic as his main launch pad. The polytechnic ran a free service that gave access to Janet, a national network linking academic institutions. From Leeds he got into computers at other educational establishments, and dialled out over British Telecom's 'Packet Switch Stream', or PSS data network, to reach machines world-wide.

The police asked the polytechnic to put a monitor on its computer. This 'listened' to the data traffic in the same way that a telephone tap listens to voices. In early June 1991, the polytechnic rang the unit to say Wandii had logged on to its computer and was using this to hack into another computer at Bristol polytechnic. The police contacted British Telecom's investigators, who traced the call from Bristol to Leeds and finally to Mr Bedworth's home in Ilkley.

They raided the property at 11.40pm on 26 June 1991, charging Mr Bedworth with conspiracy to dishonestly obtain telecommunications services, conspiracy to cause unauthorised modification of computer material and conspiracy to secure unauthorised access to computer material. The second count is the most serious, carrying a maximum five-year prison sentence.

The police said they opted for conspiracy because Mr Bedworth had got into so many computers that to list them all would have created an indictment the length of a telephone directory.

The prosecution concentrated on five of his hacking escapades, one involving a computer owned by the Commission of European Communities in Luxembourg, where he planted his own home-made bulletin board. This flashed up the greeting 'Welcome to the Magic Mushroom, written by Wandii'.

He also got into a computer at the Financial Times and used it as a staging post from which to reach other computers. He planted a 'scanning program' on the machine, that once set running, automatically called other computer telephone numbers in the hope that one might respond, hitting the jackpot.

In some cases, he could have caused serious damage. In June 1991, he gained access to the confidential medical records of thousands of cancer patients on a database in Brussels.

The computer that held this database was vulnerable, with user names and passwords reserved for maintenance engineers left in place. Mr Bedworth added another scanning program to this computer, which, over a week, made about 50,000 unauthorised calls.

The defence called James Griffith-Edwards, professor of addictive behaviour at London University, as an expert witness. He helped to write the World Health Organisation definitions of addiction and has many years of clinical experience. He interviewed Mr Bedworth and found him lonely and vulnerable.

But the professor also found him to be unusually gifted, having achieved A grades in eight O-level subjects, passed an A-level at 15 and went on to get two As and a B in three additional A-level subjects.

He has never had a girlfriend and said he would like one, but would not know how to ask a girl out. 'He became profoundly embarrassed when asked to talk about his own feelings. He simply couldn't cope when asked what sort of person he was,' the professor said.

What gripped him was the intellectual challenge of trying to beat the security of systems, Professor Griffith-Edwards said. 'This is the core of the things that attract the compulsive gambler.' He repeated 12 times in police interviews: 'I'm just addicted. I wish I wasn't' The professor said that, in his opinion, Mr Bedworth was not able to stop and that the obsession took away his freedom to choose.

The prosecution questioned whether he could have been addicted since his activities were 'manifestly pleasurable'. There was no evidence that he tried to resist or that it grossly affected his family or school life. It argued that his 'vandalism' was still vandalism although it required great intelligence.

Mr Bedworth now considers hacking 'silly'. He is in the second year of a course on artificial intelligence at Edinburgh University. He is designing a computer system that can recognise handwriting - one of the more difficult tasks for a computer.

John Butler, service manager for computers in his university department, said that a student obsessed with climbing around a system would be recognised for what he was. 'I usually tell them to go off and discover beer and women and occasionally that works.' He added: 'This is a new area of morals. We are dealing with something under 20 years old. Our moral values in other areas go back centuries.'

The investigation spanned two years, involved police from eight forces and BT's own special investigators, leading the defence to describe the trial as 'a sledgehammer to crack a nut'.

One question remains unanswered: Mr Bedworth was not a joyrider or ram-raider. He was not physically violent. Why did the police not warn him they were aware of his activities, and give him a chance to stop?

(Photographs omitted)