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eBay hacker pleads guilty

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Jerome Heckenkamp pleaded guilty Thursday to defacing the online auction house eBay and penetrating systems at the San Diego-based telecommunication equipment maker Qualcomm, ending years of pre-trial court wrangling and casting considerable doubt on his public claims of innocence.

Under the terms of his plea deal with prosecutors, Heckenkamp, 24, admitted to causing at least $70,000 in losses in a 1999 hacking spree while a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. In addition to the Qualcomm and eBay hacks -- the latter performed under the handle "MagicFX" -- Heckenkamp admitted to penetrating the systems of Exodus Communications, Juniper Networks, Lycos, and Cygnus Solutions.

Prosecutors agreed to recommend no more than two years in prison, and not to seek restrictions on Heckenkamp's employment-related use of computers and the Internet in the period of court supervision likely to follow any prison term.

The hacker will get credit for approximately eight months of time that he spent in custody in 2002, after he fired his lawyer to clear the way for a series of unusual legal challenges that only served to perplex and anger federal judges in two jurisdictions.

Among other gambits, Heckenkamp had argued that the government lacked standing to prosecute anyone, and that the indictments in the case referred to a different defendant: they spelled his name in all capital letters, while he spells it with the first letter capitalized and subsequent letters in lower case. Angered by the arguments, federal judge James Ware declared Heckenkamp a flight risk and ordered him arrested in the courtroom. He was released on bail, months later, only after accepting legal representation again.

Defense attorney Benjamin Coleman says he'll ask the court to accept a formulation of federal sentencing guideline factors that limits Heckenkamp's sentence to the time he's already served. "The way the guideline should be calculated, he should get time-served," said Coleman. "He shouldn't do any more time."

The plea agreement also allows the lawyer to challenge as unconstitutional the 1999 search of Heckenkamp's computer that led to the charges. According to court records, examination of the deleted file space on Heckenkamp's Linux box surfaced a detailed personal log of computer intrusions at 120 different universities and companies.

If the appeal is successful, Heckenkamp's conviction could be undone. But either way, his oft-repeated claims of innocence are likely a thing of the past.

In a 2002 jailhouse interview with SecurityFocus, Heckenkamp claimed that hackers had penetrated his dorm-room computer and used it to crack other systems. "Some of these companies I had never even heard of before I was charged," said Heckenkamp. A similar theme dominated a website set up by supporters and maintained by Heckenkamp's father, coloring the hacker an "innocent scapegoat of a restless, unrelenting and desperate FBI, caught in the middle of a 21st century spin-off of McCarthyism."

That website could no longer be reached Monday. Heckenkamp's father, Thomas Heckenkamp, declined to comment on the plea. Sentencing in the case is set for May 10th.

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