Computer Hacking. New Laws, New Penalties.

“Computer Hackers”, in the 1970s used to be smart kids who could make a computer do new and surprising things. Now the words mean, “Computer Criminals”.

In a new Act of Parliament the maximum Prison sentence for the most serious computer hacking offences has increased.

The Serious Crime Act of 2015 came into force in May this year – it defines a new crime of doing an unauthorised act in relation to a computer, knowing it to be unauthorised and with an intention of causing serious damage [including, to National Security] of a material kind or a reckless disregard of such consequence.

Previously (from the law of 1990] the maximum sentence was ten years in jail and/or a fine, now the sentence as a maximum is increased to life imprisonment. Since that is the maximum prison sentence that the English Courts can impose, it follows that it is the view of the Government and therefore of the Courts that potentially, computer hacking is the equal of the most serious crimes that can be committed.

Computer Crime must be one of the most problematical areas of criminal law. Not least, the problem of finding the hackers. And then, to distinguish between criminals and the intellectually curious. Only police agencies with a deep understanding of how computers and programming works can hope to track down cyber-criminals. Or sometimes, children with computers and bright minds.

Or an autistic man so obsessive about alien investigations that he hacked into Pentagon computers in search of the “secret truth” – Gary Mckinnon would have faced 70 years in jail if he had been extradited to the USA. Doctors say he would probably have killed himself.

There are hackers everywhere and it is hard to call all of them criminals. Some of them are very bright children.

Back in pre-history when I was young, if a child was interested in rock music, the way to learn to play was to deconstruct a classic song. Johnny B. Goode link here and painstakingly, note by note, learn what to do, and voila years later to join the Rolling Stones!

So I presume it is with young computer programmers.

There are of course most youngsters, who are happy to play with a computer using programs already written for them, as most teenagers simply play music without wanting to write or play their own.

But the brighter ones [and maybe the oddballs] will want to write their own programs and again, the way they like to learn is to try to take apart other people’s programs, learn how they are made and how to do it for yourself. To hack them, in other words.

I suspect, for as long as there have been computers or indeed any kind of secret codes, there have been intelligent minds who want to hack, for the pure intellectual joy of being able to do so.

But on the other hand, there have always been dangerous criminals who will use any tools they can to reap havoc and/or turn an illegal profit. Remember the episode of Homeland where the murderer killed the Vice-President of the United States by sending a radio code to jam his heart pacemaker?

The technology is not fantasy, far from it – link here- to a suggestion that perhaps Pathologists and Coroners may soon need to have complex computer skills. Murder by hacking.

Where is the line between the criminal and the enthusiast? No doubt that will be a problem for the Courts rather than the police. And for parents, who as always never know what their teenagers are getting up to even when they are in the house!

Here’s what occurs to me – In the 1960s most telephone exchanges went automatic as the human operators were abandoned. Almost within weeks, teenagers began to play with the new systems, sending tones over the phone to fool the machinery into allowing free calls. The Phone Phreakers!

If you don’t know, take a guess as to the identity of the two leading phone phreakers of their day.

With a box of bits from Radio Shack, they managed to get free calls all around the world [crime of theft, or obtaining pecuniary advantage by deception] and they even made spoof calls in the name of Henry Kissinger [crime of reckless breach of national security] to the Pope and they got through to President Nixon having hacked his security code-words [they told him they had run out of toilet paper would he please get them some?].

All from ten dollar boxes they made and then sold at a profit around the University campuses to fellow students. They were the subject of an FBI investigation – though never caught.

How different would the world be today if they had been caught and jailed for life as criminals? – Steve Wozniak and the late Steve Jobs, two of the founders of Apple computers, now the richest company in the world.

How many teenage geniuses will now fall foul of the Serious Crime Act 2015 and spend their lives in jail rather than changing the world? Here is the link to the Home Office Guide

OK, back in the day-to-day, Do please get in touch whenever I can assist and whenever you have a legal issue which has any foreign element, in whatever language. We are here to help or phone me or Louise +44 (0) 1138160116