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UK teen escapes jail in nuclear lab hack case

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A UK teenager who admits breaking into the network of Fermilab, a US high-energy physics research lab, has escaped imprisonment.

Joseph McElroy, 18, from Woodford Green in East London, was today sentenced to 200 hours community service at a hearing at Southwark Crown Court this afternoon.

Passing sentence, Judge Andrew Goymer told McElroy: "You have only just escaped prison." People found guilty of similar offences in the future would not be so fortunate, he said.

Fermilab had pressed for £21,215 compensation from McElroy, but he escaped a fine, on the grounds that he had no means to pay.

McElroy pleaded guilty to hacking into 17 computers at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in June 2002 at a hearing at Bow Street Magistrates' Court last October. His actions contravened the UK's Computer Misuse Act.

McElroy’s escapades were described by the prosecution as at the low-end of hacking crimes. The Crown accepted that the youth had no malicious intent. But McElroy's actions had serious consequences, even though his objective was only to use the lab's network to download films and music from the Net. The lab's computer systems had to be shut down for three days once the intrusion - which triggered a full-scale alert - was discovered. Fermi Lab is run by the US Department of Energy.

It was quickly established that classified systems were not accessed, but the authorities pressed ahead with a prosecution.

US investigators tracked the intrusion to the UK before passing the case over to Scotland Yard's Computer Crime Unit; it in turn tracked McElroy to his parent’s home in east London. ®

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Sentencing postponed in nuclear lab hack case
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The US DoE's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. The atom-smashing lab at the eye of the storm.

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