February 3, 2004 10:06 AM PST

U.K. teen avoids jail for nuclear hacking

A University of Exeter student who hacked into U.S. Department of Energy computers dedicated to U.S. energy supplies and nuclear weapons has been sentenced to 200 hours community service at Southwark Crown Court in London.

Joseph James McElroy, 18, of Woodford Green in London, had been found guilty of unauthorized modification of computer data and of impairing the performance of a computer under section three of the 1990 Computer Misuse Act at Bow Street Magistrates in December.


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In sentencing, Judge Goymer told McElroy that it was understandable that the U.S. government at first thought a terrorist attempt had been made to compromise its computers, which are responsible for energy supplies and for the integrity and safety of U.S. nuclear weapons.

McElroy accessed 17 computers at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Chicago in June 2002, which contained both classified and nonclassified data on atomic weapons and research.

But he had only used spare storage space on the labs' computers and broadband access to upload pirated movies, software and games for him and his friends to use. He had also password-protected this space.

Lab staff only noticed the systems had been compromised when backups started slowing down and taking much longer than usual. An investigation involving U.S. authorities and Scotland Yard's computer crime unit uncovered McElroy's e-mail address, and he was arrested in July last year.

The U.S. government had claimed ?21,215 ($38,975) in costs for the three days it took to clean and repair the hard drives, during which time vital research data was unavailable.

Judge Goymer said McElroy had no means to pay those costs as he had already accrued ?3,000 ($5,510) in student debt in his first year at university.

But he said this should be a warning to those who think hacking into computers is a "joke" or a "hobby" and that anyone in the future found guilty of such offences will face custodial sentences.

"This is a serious offence," he said. "Computers are an important feature of life in the 21st century. Government, industry, commerce and a whole variety of other industries rely on the integrity and reliability of their computers in order that their proper and legitimate activities can be carried out."

The court ordered that all the pirated software, movies and games found on McElroy's computers be destroyed.

Andy McCue of Silicon.com reported from London.

 

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