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US authorities are to introduce harsher sentences for convicted computer criminals starting next month.

The stiffer penalties, developed by the US Sentencing Commission to comply with a Congressional bill last year, are designed to reflect the serious damage caused by crackers and virus writers.

However, the supposed deterrent effect of the tougher approach have already been questioned by the most famous former computer felon, Kevin Mitnick, who argues that the measures are unlikely to have the desired deterrent effect.

The Washington Post reports that the current tariff for most computer crimes ranges from between one to ten years maximum in prison, although sentences of between 20 years and life can be levied if it's proved a computer crime resulted in serious injury or death.

Penalties on the rise

Under the revised sentencing guidelines, crackers convicted of stealing personal data would face an average of a 25 per cent increase in jail. This becomes a 50 per cent increase in jail time if computer crims pass on purloined data to a third party or a doubling in a sentence if sensitive data is posted on the Net.

Crackers who trespass into government and military computers, or break into the networks of systems controlling critical national infrastructure systems, also face a doubling in jail time.

Meanwhile, break-ins to online accounts would be punishable by sentences based by the amount of money in an account, even if no money is stolen. Under the new guidelines, judges can add an extra 50 per cent increase to a prison sentence if funds are nicked.

Convicted virus authors face a 50 per cent increase in their prison sentence.

And under the revised rules, prosecutors are allowed to factor in the cost of repairing systems and lost revenue in counting up the damage caused by a computer crime. Traditionally computer crimes only became felony offences where more than $5000 in damage was caused.

"The increases in penalties are a reflection of the fact that these offences are not just fun and games, that there are real world consequences for potentially devastating computer hacking and virus cases," said John G Malcolm, deputy assistant attorney general and head of the US Justice Department's computer crimes section, told the Washington Post. "Thus far, the penalties have not been commensurate with the harm that these hacking cases have caused to real victims."

The revised sentencing guidelines only apply in prosecutions of adults (not juvenile court cases) that commence on 1 November. Judges will still have the power to decide sentences based on the aggravating and mitigating factors of a particular case. It's just that the starting point in these considerations has been substantially raised.

Mitnick, who spent almost six years in prison, has expressed doubts about the deterrent effect of the tougher sentencing regime.

"The person who's carrying out the act doesn't think about the consequences, and certainly doesn't think they're going to get caught," Mitnick told the Post. "I really can't see people researching what the penalties are before they do something."

Most computer criminals are "well educated, have little or no criminal history, commit their crimes on the job and often are seeking financial gain", according to Sentencing Commission documents cited by the paper. Half of the 116 federal computer crime convictions in 2001 and 2002 involved disaffected workers, it reports. ®

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