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Speaking after teenager Joseph James McElroy was sentenced to 200 hours of community service for breaking into a US government laboratory computer system, detective chief superintendent Len Hynds suggested that the legal profession often did not understand the impact of hacking.
Although hackers who engage in extortion or fraud are treated as serious criminals, fewer people understand that simply accessing a computer system can cause serious damage.
"We have to confront that kind of view. The internet has grown up and we need to say to the people that think it is fun to rifle through people's private files that they are actually committing a crime," Hynds said.
The US Department of Energy estimated that McElroy, a computing student at Exeter University, caused damage worth £21,000. However, demands for compensation were dropped on the grounds that McElroy had not compromised confidential data at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab near Chicago.
McElroy used the computer systems at the lab to store hundreds of gigabytes of film and music files, which he secured with a password and shared with friends.
Staff at the laboratory discovered the files when they noticed that data back-ups were taking much longer than usual.
McElroy was sentenced at Southwark Crown Court last week following a joint investigation by the Department of Energy and Scotland Yard's Computer Crime Unit.
Victims must speak up to beat cybercrime >>