How should an underage cyberthief be dealt with?

Evan Schuman

jail cells

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?

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