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UK teenager accused of ‘electronic sabotage’ against US port

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A British teenager allegedly brought down the Internet systems of a major US port while attempting to extract revenge on a fellow IRC user, a court heard today.

Aaron Caffrey, 19, allegedly slowed systems at the port of Houston in Texas to a crawl as the result of an attack actually aimed at a fellow chat-room user, called Bokkie. Bokkie’s anti-American remarks days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks annoyed the British teenager so much that he allegedly sought to take out her Net connection using an attack tool he had created.

Caffrey, of Saftesbury, Dorset, pleaded not guilty to the single charge of unauthorised modifications of a computer contrary to Section 3 of the Computer Misuse Act 1990 at the start of his trial today.

Collateral damage

Prosecutor Paul Addison said the port of Houston’s systems were one of an unknown number of intermediary server systems used in the PING flood attack Caffrey allegedly initiated in the early hours of September 21 2001 (UK time).

The court heard extracts from an IRC conversation during which Caffrey (or someone using his AaronX nick-name) argued with Bokkie, a South African 17 year-old then living in the US, over her remarks that Americans were arrogant or "Almighty". Caffrey took particular exception to these remarks because he was in love with an American girl, called Jessica, at the time.

Caffrey had christened his computer Jessica and references to his affection for the girl were found in text strings within a DDoS attack tool, allegedly created by Caffrey, which investigators ultimately recovered from his computer. Computer logs from the Port of Houston enabled police to trace the attack back to a computer in Caffrey’s Dorset home. He was arrested by UK police in January 2002.

Caffrey denies creating the attack tool (named in court as IIS Unicode Exploiter – PING DDoS tool, coded by Aaron) or launching the attack. He maintains that evidence against him was planted on his machine by an attacker who used an unspecified Trojan to gain control of his PC and launch the assault. Addison said the prosecution will call expert witnesses to disprove these claims.

Electronic sabotage

The court heard that an attack launched against the Port of Houston’s Web systems on the evening of September 20 (Central Standard Time) affected the performance of its entire network. As a result data (tides, water depths and weather) to help pilots navigate through the harbour and by shipping companies became inaccessible.

Addison said that the attack "could have had catastrophic repercussions for those reliant on the computer in the Port of Houston", the world’s eighth-busiest maritime facility.

Although no injury or damage was caused, Caffrey’s actions still amount to a form of "electronic sabotage", Addison told the jury.

The court heard that the Port suffered a similar DDoS attack in August 2001 for which a US citizen has already been convicted. Caffrey is not suspected of involvement in that attack.

The case against Caffrey is one of the first times a computer crime prosecution has been put before a jury in the UK. In most such cases, the accused enters a guilty plea or (more infrequently) the prosecution abandons its case long before reaching this stage.

Caffrey suffers from Asperger's Syndrome - a mild form of autism – which impairs his ability to concentrate over extended periods, among other thing. As a result of his medical condition, Judge Loraine Smith allowed Caffrey to sit next to his lawyers and scheduled frequent breaks in the proceedings.

The case, which is scheduled to last for three days, continues. ®

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