The US is demanding £21,000 in compensation from a teenage hacker who infiltrated computer systems at a US government nuclear physics research laboratory.
The compensation demand, believed to be the first time an organisation has used the UK criminal courts to recover the costs of repairing hacked computer systems, could set a precedent for future prosecutions against computer criminals.
Joseph James McElroy, 18, a first-year student at Exeter University, pleaded guilty to hacking into computer systems at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Chicago, at a hearing at Bow Street’s magistrates court last month.
He admitted using the Fermilab computers, part of the US Department of Energy, to create a private bulletin board to store hundreds of gigabytes of copyrighted film and music files which he shared with friends.
The laboratory was forced to shut down the infected computer system for three days, to carry out repairs after staff noticed that scheduled back-ups were taking far longer than expected.
McElroy was arrested at his parents' home in London following a joint investigation by the US Department of Energy and Scotland Yard’s Computer Crime Unit.
He told police that he was under the impression that the Fermilab computers were owned by a university rather than a US government laboratory.
He admitted hacking into university computer systems to gain access to the internet because he believed they did not have to pay internet access charges. He told police that he made a point of not hacking into corporate systems.
At a hearing yesterday at Bow Street Magistrates court, Judge Daphne Wickham referred McElroy for sentencing at Southwark Crown Court in the new year.
Stuart Sampson, for the prosecution, told the court that the US government had estimated the cost of repairing the hacked computers at £21,000.
The figure, however, does not include the costs of the investigation which led to McElroy’s arrest.