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17 Oct 2003

Teen hacker cleared by jury - blames other hackers for port of Houston attack. Sophos comments on difficulties faced by computer crime prosecutors

CaffreyTeenage hacker Aaron Caffrey has walked free from court after being cleared of trying to bring down one of North America's biggest ports by hacking into its computer systems.

Aaron Caffrey, 19, was accused of bringing computers to a standstill at the port of Houston in Texas - but was found not guilty by a jury today. This was despite both the prosecution and defence agreeing that Caffrey's machine was responsible for launching the attack, that a list of 11,608 IP addresses of vulnerable servers was found on his hard drive, and the discovery of a malicious script on his system signed by someone called "Aaron".

Speaking outside Southwark Crown Court in the UK, Caffrey said he was "very angry" at the way he had been treated by the police. 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."

The prosecution had alleged that Caffrey had hacked into the port's computer servers in an attempt to attack a female chatroom user called Bokkie, who had made anti-USA comments online. Caffrey was said to have fallen in love with an American girl called Jessica. He had never met Jessica, but conducted a year-long internet relationship with her. Transcripts of steamy transatlantic exchanges between the couple were read out in court. Caffrey's computer was even named after Jessica, and the malicious attack script which was launched against the port included a dedication to her.

Computers at the port suffered a severe denial-of-service attack on 20 September, 2001. The attack crashed systems at the port which contained vital data for shipping and mooring companies responsible for helping ships navigate into and out of the harbour. An investigation by US authorities traced the attack back to a computer at Caffrey's home in Shaftesbury, Dorset. Investigators found a copy of the attack script on the computer.

Caffrey, who has admitted being a member of a group called Allied Haxor Elite and hacking into computers for friends to test their security, but only with their permission, claimed that unidentified hackers broke into his computer and launched the attack script against the port of Houston. The jury accepted Caffrey's story, even though prosecution expert witnesses could find no evidence that his computer had ever been broken into.

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

"Caffrey has said that he would like to seek out a future career in computer security," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos. "However, according to his own story he left his own computer wide open for attack, infiltration and exploitation by unknown hackers who attempted to frame him. Although he may have served his career prospects well by not receiving a criminal record today, he has harmed them by claiming that he was not following some of the most basic steps of computer security."

Sophos notes that the "Trojan" defence has been successfully used in the UK courts before. In July, a man was cleared of possessing child porn when a number of Trojan horses were discovered on his computer.

"Clearly the authorities are facing a fundamental problem when attempting to prosecute suspected computer criminals," continued Cluley. "The Caffrey case suggests that even if no evidence of a computer break-in is unearthed they might still be able to successfully claim that they were not responsible for what their computer does, or what is found on its hard drive."

About Sophos

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