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A Houston ethical hacker accused of breaking into the wireless network of a Texan court has been acquitted of all charges.

Stefan Puffer, 34, was charged in July 2002 on "two counts of unauthorized access into a protected computer system and unauthorized access of a computer system used in justice administration", the Houston Chronicle reported yesterday. It's believed to be the first case of its kind in the US.

In court, prosecutors claimed Puffer caused $5,000 in damage by breaking into the Harris County district clerk's wireless computer network in March 2002.

On March 18 2002, Puffer demonstrated to a county official and a Chronicle reporter how easy it was to gain access to the court's system using only a laptop computer and a wireless LAN card.

Puffer first noticed the problem while scanning for insecure 802.11 networks throughout Houston earlier that month, around the time (March 8 2002) that alleged offence took place.

So was the prosecution a case of shooting the messenger?

The jury certainly seemed to think so and acquitted Puffer in a near-record 15 minutes, at the end of the three-day trial.

One juror, Helen Smith, 62, told the Houston Chronicle that they acquitted Puffer because they didn't believe the argument he intentionally caused any damage, even if he might have gained unauthorised access to the network.

Puffer, who was employed briefly by the county's technology department in 1999, could have been sentenced to five years in jail and a $250,000 fine on each count if the result had gone the other way.

Ed Chernoff, Puffer's attorney, could barely conceal his glee at the verdict.

"Throughout the trial we proved - at least it was clear - the county had their wireless butt out and they were trying to use Stefan as a scapegoat," he told the Houston Chronicle.

Indeed, neither the court authorities nor the FBI, which assisted in the investigation, emerge from the case with any credit. It's difficult to believe this was a prosecution that ever needed to happen. ®

External Links

Jurors acquit man of hacking system at district clerk's office, by the Houston Chronicle

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