Teenage hacker cleared of crashing Houston's computer system

Charles Arthur,Technology Editor
Saturday 18 October 2003 00:00 BST

A teenager from Dorset who has admitted being part of a "hacker elite" has been cleared of hacking into and crashing the computers at America's biggest port, in Houston, Texas.

Aaron Caffrey, 19, from Shaftesbury, said afterwards that he was "very angry" at the way he was "interpreted" and "treated" by police.

He was alleged to have caused the crash in September 2001 while trying to get revenge against a woman who had been rude about his American girlfriend in a chatroom. But he maintained that the programmes launched from his computer had been planted there by another hacker, to incriminate him.

He walked free from Southwark Crown Court after the jury found him not guilty of a single count of unauthorised modification of computer material.

His barrister, Iain Ross, said: "He wishes to say that this ordeal has been a dark cloud hanging over him for the last two years. He had always insisted he was not guilty and that he was a victim of a criminal act rather than being a criminal himself. Mr Ross said the teenager offered to help the police and the FBI to catch the real culprits but they refused to listen. "He now wants to get his life back and wants to gain employment in the computer industry."

Mr Caffrey had earlier told the court: "I have hacked into computers legally, for friends to test their server security because they asked me to, but never illegally."

During the trial it was claimed Mr Caffrey, who suffers from Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism, had perpetrated a complex crime as the founder of a group called Allied Haxor Elite, involving computer hacking, identity theft and fraudulent financial-market trading.

The prosecution alleged that Mr Caffrey had been inspired by the film Hackers. Paul Addison told the jury that Mr Caffrey hacked into the computer server at the port to target a chatroom user called Bokkie after an argument over his girlfriend. He said Mr Caffrey had named his computer after his girlfriend Jessica and dedicated his "attack script" to her.

The attack bombarded scheduling computer systems at the port - the eighth largest in the world - with thousands of electronic messages on 20 September 2001, freezing its web service, which contained vital data for shipping, mooring companies and support firms responsible for helping ships navigate in and out of the harbour. However no harm followed the loss of service.

An investigation by US and British police traced the computer which had launched the attack to Mr Caffrey's house.

But he said an unidentified third party had planted the attack script on his system without his knowledge, set to run once he opened a particular file. He criticised the authorities for not uncovering it during their investigation.

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