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Hackers and the law

Given that computer hacking is at least three decades old, there has been plenty of time for governments to develop and approve cybercrime laws. At the moment, almost all developed countries have some form of anti-hacking law or legislation on data theft or corruption which can be used to prosecute cyber criminals. There are efforts to make these laws even more stringent, which sometimes raise protests from groups which support the right to freedom of information.

Over the past few years, there have been lots of convictions for hacking and unauthorized data access. Here are a few of them:

  • Kevin Mitnick is probably the one of the most famous hacker takedown cases. Mitnick was arrested by the FBI in Raleigh, North Carolina, on February 15th, 1995, after the computer expert Tsutomu Shimomura managed to track him to his hideout. After pleading guilty to most of the charges brought against him, Mitnick was sentenced to 46 months in prison and three years probation. He was additionally sentenced to another twenty-two months for probation violation and additional charges. He was eventually released from prison on January 21, 2000.
  • Pierre-Guy Lavoie, a 22-year-old Canadian hacker, was sentenced to 12 months of community service and placed on probation for 12 months for fraudulently using computer passwords to perpetrate computer crimes. He was sentenced under Canadian law.
  • Thomas Michael Whitehead, 38, of Boca Raton, Florida, was the first person to be found guilty under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). He was prosecuted as part of the Attorney General's Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property program and charged with selling hardware which could be used to illegally receive DirecTV satellite broadcasts.
  • Serge Humpich, a 36 year-old engineer, was sentenced to a suspended prison sentence of 10 months by a ruling issued by the 13th correctional chamber. He also had to pay 12,000 francs (approx. €1,200) in fines, and symbolic damages of one franc to the 'Groupement des Cartes Bancaires'.
  • On October 10, 2001, Vasiliy Gorshkov, age 26, of Chelyabinsk, Russia, was found guilty of 20 counts of conspiracy, computer crime, and fraud committed against the Speakeasy Network of Seattle, Washington, Nara Bank of Los Angeles, California, Central National Bank of Waco, Texas; and the online payment company PayPal of Palo Alto, California.
  • On July 1, 2003, Oleg Zezev, aka "Alex," a Kazakhstan citizen, was sentenced in a Manhattan federal court to over four years (51 months) in prison following his conviction on extortion and computer hacking charges.
  • Mateias Calin, a Romanian hacker, along with five American citizens, was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges that they conspired to steal more than $10 million in computer equipment from Ingram Micro in Santa Ana, California, the largest technology distributor in the world. Mateias and his network are yet to be convicted for these crimes and face up to 90 years in prison.
  • On the 27 March 2006, UK couple Ruth & Michael Haephrati, convicted in Israel of developing and selling a Trojan horse program, were sentenced to prison terms of four years and two years respectively (and ordered to pay 2 million Shekels [$428,000] in compensation). They sold their Trojan to private investigators who used it to access data from clients' business competitors.
  • In a well-publicised case, British hacker, Gary McKinnon, awaits extradition to the US for hacking into 97 US military and NASA computers in 2002 - described by one US prosecutor as 'the biggest military computer hack of all time'. His legal counsel has lodged a series of appeals and (at the time of writing in March 2010) continues to contest the extradition proceedings. If tried and convicted in the US, he faces up to 70 years in prison.

The list above is simply a brief digest which illustrates how cybercrime legislation has been used across the world against hackers or to convict cybercriminals in general. There are also some cases where people have been wrongly convicted of cybercrime. There are also numerous cases where hackers are still at liberty despite their names and identities being known. However, the number of such cases is being reduced day by day.

Cybercrime is here to stay. It is a reality of the 21st century, and the wide availability of the Internet and the insecure systems which come with it have increased the reach of cybercrime. With sufficiently sophisticated legislation, and more international cybercrime treaties such as being adopted, the world is hopefully heading in the right direction, with the long term aim being a safer, more law-abiding cyberspace.