How should an underage cyberthief be dealt with?

If our goal in sentencing is to reduce such crimes, you have to ask how sending kids to prison accomplishes that.

Sometimes, emotions make it difficult to see the most effective way of accomplishing an objective. And emotions can definitely arise when the subject is underage cyberthieves.

Security blogger Brian Krebs (KrebsOnSecurity) recently took a hardline stance in opposition to the lenient sentencing of a Finnish 17-year-old, who was found guilty of 50,000 cybercrimes "including data breaches, payment fraud, operating a huge botnet and calling in bomb threats." Julius Kivimäki was given a two-year suspended sentence and ordered to pay the equivalent of about $7,200. The judge pointed to the youth of the defendant, noting that he had been much younger when some of the crimes were committed, that it was his first offense, that he had already served some jail time while awaiting the trial to start and, perhaps most crucially, that no one was physically hurt by his crimes.

There are some infuriating elements to this story. For one thing, Kivimäkisaid he was affiliated with cyberthief group Lizard Squad. After the sentence, as Krebs noted, the defendant changed his Twitter profile to "Untouchable hacker god." And, he added, "the Twitter account for the Lizard Squad tweeted the news of Kivimäki's non-sentencing triumphantly: All the people that said we would rot in prison don't want to comprehend what we've been saying since the beginning, we have free passes.'"

The attitudes reflected by those actions are incredibly galling, but the real questions are whether the sentence that was handed down will keep the young cyber hoodlum from returning to his old ways and whether it will keep others from following in his footsteps.

As for the first question, recidivism, Kivimäki will be subjected to extreme monitoring that will make it quite difficult for him to launch attacks, at least not without getting caught. With his ability to do the things he used to do severely crimped, he just might discover that going legit via security consulting can be far more lucrative than launching cyberattacks, as legendary cyberthief Kevin Mitnick quickly learned.

But much of criminal sentencing is not focused on preventing the defendant from committing more crimes. The punishment, being in a very public forum, can serve to prevent others from committing similar crimes. Put another way, if punishing one teen stops 10 other teens from committing similar crimes, society deems it worthwhile. That's a fair point, if true.

But the kind of antisocial teens who have the skills and inclinations to successfully execute cybercrimes tend to be cocky sorts, members of a group whose worldview precludes the possibility of getting caught. So you have to ask, is it more likely that a harsh sentence for one of their ilk would get these punks to stop their attacks, or that it would anger and embolden a subset of them to launch revenge attacks of more consequence than anything they had done before?

I am no fan of the people who launch these attacks -- calling them "scum" offends the ordinary scum populating our communities -- but greater than my desire to see them suffer is my desire to reduce the number of attacks. I don't think that a harsh sentence such as Krebs advocates would have done that. What is the answer, then? Prevention.

IT and law enforcement have to focus more on making cyberattacks ineffective and far more time-consuming and expensive. On the IT side, data breaches and payment fraud are already being dealt with, and the sooner the industry sees security as essential and not merely an inconvenience, the better. Time and again, I run into payments companies, mobile players and retailers that dilute security for the sake of shopper convenience. That kind of mind-set deprives those companies of the right to complain when they get hit by fraud. If you choose to weaken security, you have to pay the price.

As for law enforcement, some of the offenses of the 17-year-old were calling in bomb threats and swats (calling police to falsely report a crime, with the sole objective of embarrassing, inconveniencing and harassing someone). Law enforcement must respond to such calls, but commonsense due diligence is often skipped. It can't be. Swatting, with real-life SWAT teams, could easily lead to death if something goes wrong.

I'm reminded of my interactions with one of the earliest famed cybercriminals, namely Robert Tappen Morris. His claim to fame is that he created the Morris Worm, way back in 1988. He was the first person convicted of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, following a three-week trial in Syracuse, N.Y., that I covered.

Morris, a graduate of Harvard and a Cornell grad student at the time, was also the son of the National Security Agency's chief scientist. He unleashed his worm specifically to prove the security weaknesses of the Internet. He hadn't intended to crash the Internet, but he made a math error that caused the worm to replicate out of control.

IT people all over the world called for his head, but the federal judge gave Morris probation. Having observed him for weeks, I thought the sentence was just; I saw no sense in sending Morris away to prison. Morris today is a tenured MIT professor and a partner in Y Combinator and other ventures. Nearly 25 years ago, he did something very stupid, but he had a noble goal: to make everyone aware of the Internet's security holes so that they would fix them.

Julius Kivimäki had no such noble goal. But the issue is the same. If the point of sentencing in such cases is to reduce cyberattacks, prison isn't the answer. Vengeance has its place, but I'd rather prevent attacks than imprison teens.

Evan Schuman has covered IT issues for a lot longer than he'll ever admit. The founding editor of retail technology site StorefrontBacktalk, he's been a columnist for CBSNews.com, RetailWeek and eWeek. Evan can be reached at eschuman@thecontentfirm.com and he can be followed at twitter.com/eschuman. Look for his column every other Tuesday.

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