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Lawyers and security firms have condemned a decision by an Australian court to release without punishment a man who admitted to breaking into ISP OptusNet's network.

Stephen Craig Dendtler, 22, of Bankstown, New South Wales, escaped either a conviction or fine last week even though he admitted gaining access to thousands of sensitive customer details through a back door in OptusNet's network.

The software engineer's lawyer claimed that Dendtler's cracking activities were nothing more than an "intellectual pursuit", The Age reports.

Australian law firm Deacons said the court's decision gives a "green light to hackers".

"The decision of a New South Wales court not to impose any punishment on a defendant guilty of hacking could severely undermine efforts to secure Australian cyberspace," says Leif Gamertsfelder, Head of E-Security at Deacons.

"If courts fail to punish people guilty of serious computer crimes, the wrong message will be sent to the community. The surprising decision in this case is tantamount to giving a judicial green light to hacking in Australia.

Gamertsfelder said the case was an example of the courts failing to take cases involving computers or intangible property seriously.

"Courts wouldn't be lenient on offenders that physically broke into telecommunication buildings or banks with intent to cause damage. Unfortunately, where intangible assets are concerned some courts appear to take the view that they do not deserve the same level of protection as physical assets.

"The case makes a mockery of the recent attempts of Australian parliaments to bolster criminal laws in order to send strong general deterrence messages to would be hackers," he added.

Paul Ducklin, head of technology for Asia Pacific at Sophos Anti-Virus, also criticised the court's decision.

At minimum, judges should have recorded a conviction and imposed a fine on Dendtler, according to Sophos. ®

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