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He hacked, he stole porn, he spied. But British man isn’t going to jail

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Is there any consistency in how hackers are treated by courts around the world?

It’s a rhetorical question, of course, because we all know the answer. Of course there is no consistency.

Just take the case of convicted British hacker Ryan Thompson this week, for instance.

26-year-old Thompson was sentenced to a six month suspended prison sentence at Warrington Crown Court last Friday after admitting hacking into the computers of unsuspecting internet users, many of whom were teenagers or young adults.

Using a remote access Trojan horse that he had bought for £30 online, Thompson was able to hijack victims’ computers, grabbing passwords and personal account information, steal files and commandeer their webcams. Typically he would trick victims into clicking on a dangerous link, often disguising the spyware as a cheat for users of gaming websites.

On at least one occasion, Thompson found a stash of pornographic images on one of the computers he had infected, and threatened to expose the owner unless he was paid the princely sum of $5.

Because the sentence Thompson received was suspended for 12 months, he won’t have to serve any prison time as long as he keeps his nose clean.

So, is this justice? It’s certainly hard to imagine that the courts would have been as lenient in some other parts of the world which have taken a hard line on hacking.

But, as ever, there are extenuating circumstances which should be taken into account.

Thompson’s legal team said that his actions were “naive and stupid” and inspired by a “geek-level interest in computers”. That by itself probably doesn’t make Thompson stand out in the catalogue of cybercrime, but according to media reports, he had suspended his nefarious activities one month prior to a joint investigation by the FBI and the UK’s National Crime Agency resulted in his arrest.

Furthermore, Thompson is unemployed, provides support to his mother, and has no prior convictions.

Would any good really be done by sending Thompson to prison?

Judge Tina Landale appears to have agreed that it was not in the best interests of anyone to send Thompson immediately to prison, but wanted to be sure that he understood the seriousness of his crimes:

“You committed a very serious offence across the world by installing a programme on your computer and bringing misery to many young people. I’m satisfied you did target young people because of the sites you used.”

Although he has escaped a jail sentence, Thompson has been ordered to pay £300 in costs, and carry out 280 hours of unpaid work.

Do you think the courts treated 26-year-old Thompson fairly in this case, or would you rather have seen a harsher punishment? Leave a comment below with your point of view.

About the author

Graham CLULEY

Graham Cluley is an award-winning security blogger, researcher and public speaker. He has been working in the computer security industry since the early 1990s, having been employed by companies such as Sophos, McAfee and Dr Solomon's. He has given talks about computer security for some of the world's largest companies, worked with law enforcement agencies on investigations into hacking groups, and regularly appears on TV and radio explaining computer security threats.

Graham Cluley was inducted into the InfoSecurity Europe Hall of Fame in 2011, and was given an honorary mention in the "10 Greatest Britons in IT History" for his contribution as a leading authority in internet security.

5 Comments

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  • No, it won’t do any good. In the end what is done is done and nothing can be undone in this world – nothing in the past, at least (things can be unmade or deliberately broken but actions cannot be undone). There are certainly much worse crimes that get a very lenient sentence so why not here? Or more specifically why not really admit that justice is a lie?

  • These people get off on this and no amount of jail time will change them. I’m a single mum with 3 daughters and the past 2 years I’ve had so many problems . I’m not sure how it started but gave had all my personal info stolen, bank accounts hacked and traces on NetBank. My daughters have been sexually harassed from on there phones, there photos downloaded to phobo.com. Have been without home pH, mobile,computers over a year now as as soon as I get a number I get hang up calls. Telstra page hacked into and I was changed to go guest, my local club statement says I have gambled 320,000 in 6 m( not even close as not working at moment. When I do try and set mobile up there is constant internet activity somehow. My TV turns on and off , found info past year in devices taking me to ironsocket., zone transfers, once my mobile changes overnight from optus to admin.subnet(similar) streaming from phone. Everything in codeing,numbers, letters. Certificates all say not to be trusted. Japanese government etc .Can someone give me advice or put me on to someone in Sydney. April 14 had water,meter box, RYA details all changed. So many weird things. Constant people on mobiles front of my house past year. Not paranoid but no one is taking me seriously. Not sure how much more we can take.. Set new mobile up today and afx app keeps coming up and found Stan,meet me, another app maybe what’s app hidden in phone. Have spent fortune and got nothing left to get more help. Desperate. Thanks :))

  • this is in reality, quite funny: you wish my opinion? for what reason, or purpose? will it even serve a purpose, other than to stimulate criticism of the opinion, increase readership and generate nothing of real value? now, if each of us had a half-pence for even a portion of our “opinions,” the unemployment rate would decrease to the point of eliminating all world deficit…. yeah, yeah, i know, the ramifications of that statement are undefinable, if not ridiculous….

    so, continuing: one could submit the opinion that, yes, he’s a nice guy, never before been caught doing something like this or any thing else, for that matter, therefore, give him a break; after all, he says, “i promise I won’t do it again, your honor.” of course, he’s also never told an untruth, either, has he? well, at least not one identified when that thorough background investigation was conducted, right?

    conversely, we could take the position that, no, everyone should be treated equally and consequences should be handed down with that same level of equality with no weight given to the judge’s subjective opinion.

    it is my opinion that the chance of receiving a ruling based on objectivity was eliminated and subjective rulings became the norm when the term “extenuating circumstances” was introduced to the judicial system. that term gave the court and its’ ruling judge cart-Blanche when pronouncing judgment.

    now, do you see why seeking opinions on a matter already decided issue is, more or less, a waste of effort and resources? thought not; that, too, is simply an opinion in itself, agree? thought not – it, too, is yet just another found-less, individual, subjective opinion carrying no weight with any one other that the person issuing said opinion, view, belief, biased position on a matter that, in the end, usually makes no difference whether is was given or not…..

    ok, nuf; in my opinion that i’m getting dizzy!

  • He committed a fairly minor series of offences. Given that the sentence was suspended, he will have been told that there was a very real possibility that he was going to jail some months before the court appearance. That is a very scary prospect to be facing if you’ve never previously been in any trouble with the law. The sentence will also have been given after a full report was undertaken by the Probation Service. This looks at the possibility of re-offending and also at the likely effects of any period of incarceration. The maximum period for community service is 300 hours. Given his sentence was 280, he obviously came within a whisker of going to prison and any half-decent lawyer will have told him so. Let’s hope that he’s learned his lesson.

  • There are two sides of a Coin. Here, government must have taken a step to nurture his skill and talent and move him to departments handling cyber crime, artificial intelligence, etc. Such people generally never come forward for making their skills and talent to be used in right direction.