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Vigilante Hacker's Evidence Puts Judge Behind Bars

A so-called hacktivist's Trojan program that allowed him to infiltrate the judge's computer and find evidence of child pornography possession raises legal and ethical questions for some.
The question now is whether this case will spur more would-be vigilante hackers to take up arms against any number of groups or causes. While the prosecutor claims the state wouldn't have had a case against Kline without Willman's help, virus writing and accessing someone else's computer is a legal minefield. And if the malware or intrusion had caused more than $5,000 in damages to the computer, the hacktivist could have been facing federal charges.

"You don't want vigilante amateurs getting involved in this," says Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos. "They are breaking the law. ... The danger here is taking the law into your own hands."

Keith Jones, a senior partner with Maryland-based Jones, Rose, Dykstra & Associates, a digital forensics company, says infecting machines with malware could damage evidence that law enforcement will need to make the case. It also could give the defense something to argue during court.

"A case without a Trojan is going to be a heck of a lot easier to prove," says Jones, who has done forensic investigations on more than 100 cases, including the UBS PaineWebber case last year. "If there's a Trojan on there, you're no longer examining a computer that only the owner has been able to touch. Now you have the added job of figuring out if this picture was downloaded by the person physically controlling the keyboard or by the person controlling the Trojan. ... It lets the defense argue that someone else had the ability to do it."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Elena Duarte did not work on the Kline case but as chief of the Cyber and Intellectual Property Crimes Section for the Los Angeles office, she warns would-be hacktivists that no matter the cause, hacking is still against the law.

"I would caution folks who think that just because there's a moral justification it makes it all right to violate any laws," she says. "Computer intrusion statues don't provide for a justification if you have a good motive. It's not a good thing and it certainly should be discouraged. ... It puts them in a position of a potential target for prosecution."

Duarte says anyone thinking of working as a vigilante should make sure they know the law, and consider if they want to run the risk of being criminally prosecuted.

"It's always good to see criminals brought to justice but the means of doing that are just as important," says Duarte. "If the means are not appropriate, then we certainly don't encourage them."