Hackers face life imprisonment under 'Anti-Terrorism' Act

Justice Department proposal classifies most computer crimes as acts of terrorism.

By Kevin Poulsen
Sep 23, 2001

Hackers, virus-writers and web site defacers would face life imprisonment without the possibility of parole under legislation proposed by the Bush Administration that would classify most computer crimes as acts of terrorism.

The Justice Department is urging Congress to quickly approve its Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), a twenty-five page proposal that would expand the government's legal powers to conduct electronic surveillance, access business records, and detain suspected terrorists.

The proposal defines a list of "Federal terrorism offenses" that are subject to special treatment under law. The offenses include assassination of public officials, violence at international airports, some bombings and homicides, and politically-motivated manslaughter or torture.

Most of the terrorism offenses are violent crimes, or crimes involving chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. But the list also includes the provisions of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that make it illegal to crack a computer for the purpose of obtaining anything of value, or to deliberately cause damage. Likewise, launching a malicious program that harms a system, like a virus, or making an extortionate threat to damage a computer are included in the definition of terrorism.

To date no terrorists are known to have violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. But several recent hacker cases would have qualified as "Federal terrorism offenses" under the Justice Department proposal, including the conviction of Patrick Gregory, a prolific web site defacer who called himself "MostHateD"; Kevin Mitnick, who plead guilty to penetrating corporate networks and downloading proprietary software; Jonathan "Gatsby" Bosanac, who received 18-months in custody for cracking telephone company computers; and Eric Burns, the Shoreline, Washington hacker who scrawled "Crystal, I love you" on a United States Information Agency web site in 1999. The 19-year-old was reportedly trying to impress a classmate with whom he was infatuated.

The Justice Department submitted the ATA to Congress late last week as a response to the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania that killed some 7,000 people.

As a "Federal terrorism offense," the five year statute of limitations for hacking would be abolished retroactively -- allowing computer crimes committed decades ago to be prosecuted today -- and the maximum prison term for a single conviction would be upped to life imprisonment. There is no parole in the federal justice system

Those convicted of providing "advice or assistance" to cyber crooks, or harboring or concealing a computer intruder, would face the same legal repercussions as an intruder. Computer intrusion would also become a predicate offense for the RICO statutes.

DNA samples would be collected from hackers upon conviction, and retroactively from those currently in custody or under federal supervision. The samples would go into the federal database that currently catalogs murderers and kidnappers.

Civil liberties groups have criticized the ATA for its dramatic expansion of surveillance authority, and other law enforcement powers.

But Attorney General John Ashcroft urged swift adoption of the measure Monday.

Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, Ashcroft defended the proposal's definition of terrorism. "I don't believe that our definition of terrorism is so broad," said Ashcroft. "It is broad enough to include things like assaults on computers, and assaults designed to change the purpose of government."

The Act is scheduled for mark-up by the committee Tuesday morning.

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