Teen Hacker Triggers Nuclear Terrorism Alert

February 3rd, 2004 - by admin

by Sydney Morning Herald –

A British teenager has narrowly escaped jail after sparking a nuclear panic by hacking into a top secret United States weapons laboratory.

Joseph McElroy, 18, who on Monday was ordered to serve a 200-hour community punishment order, bypassed the facility’s electronic security systems with sophisticated software he had developed and nicknamed Deathserv.

McElroy wanted to use the advanced network’s power to download and store films and music from the internet.

London’s Southwark Crown Court heard that in June 2002, he used a special password to protect his collection and cover up his “parasitic” invasion.

US Nuke Lab Freaked by Hackers
But so many of his fellow hackers also accessed the system at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois that it began to slow down. Technicians discovered the breach and “pressed the panic button”. Fearing a terrorist attack, the computer was closed down for three days and the US Department of Energy sounded a full-scale alert.

Officers at Scotland Yard’s computer crimes unit were contacted and quickly traced the then-16-year-old student to his east London home.

McElroy, now a first-year engineering undergraduate, pleaded guilty to one count of unauthorised modification of the contents of a computer.

Judge Andrew Goymer told him he ought to “think yourself lucky” he was not going to jail. “Computers are an important feature of life in the 21st century. Government, industry and commerce, as well as a whole variety of other institutions, depend upon the integrity and reliability of their computers in order their proper and legitimate activities can be carried on.”

As the slightly built, bespectacled defendant stood in the dock, Mr Goymer said no criticism could be levelled at the way US authorities responded to the security breach.

Breach Caused a ‘Great Deal of Damage’
“One can well understand why their initial reaction was to think that a terrorist attack had been made to compromise that computer,” he said. “It caused a great deal of damage and expense amounting to £21,000 ($50,300).” The judge said he had to think “long and hard” how best to punish McElroy for what was clearly a “serious” offence.

While “giving you the benefit of the doubt” and accepting that McElroy was initially unaware whose system he was hacking into, Parliament had intended such conduct be dealt with severely.

It was important the “wrong message is not sent out to anybody else who is tempted to behave in this way”, he said.

However, said the judge, McElroy’s previous good character, the fact he had not caused any actual harm and had not accessed any classified material meant prison was not necessary in this case.

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