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Kiwi botmaster escapes conviction despite guilty plea

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An NZ teenager who became notorious for masterminding the creation of one of the largest cybercrime networks has escaped conviction, despite admitting computer hacking and fraud offences.

Owen Thor Walker (AKA AKILL), 18 and from Whitianga, pleaded guilty to six cybercime offences in late March, but Justice Judith Potter dismissed the charges at a sentencing hearing this week, and instead ordered the teenager to pay damages and costs of NZ$14,000 ($10,800).

Walker has Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism that is often associated with exceptional skills and interest in a specialist topic accompanied by a lack of social skills and awareness. This, together with his cooperation with police, prompted lenient treatment.

Walker may even turn from poacher to gamekeeper after local police said his "talents" could come in handy, according to local reports.

The youngster (at first known only by his online moniker, AKILL) was cuffed last November as part of an FBI-led investigation into cybercrime, codenamed Operation Bot Roast. Investigators presented Walker as the technical whiz and ringleader behind a gang which gained control of up to one million compromised PCs as part of a scam designed to siphon loot from online bank accounts.

Court hearings revealed that Walker's activities were largely restricted to developing Trojans that lifted account login credentials from compromised PCs rather than coordinating operations, which netted an estimated NZ$20m ($15.4m). As well as raiding online banking accounts, the gang made money by distributing spam and adware.

Justice Potter decided AKILL's computer hacking sprung from curiosity rather than criminal intent. He ruled that Walker lacked the necessary criminal intent to be convicted, despite his earlier guilty plea. He described him as a young man with a "potentially outstanding future".

Speaking outside court, Walker said he realised his actions were wrong. He said he has not received any approaches about work from the authorities but expressed interest in switching sides. ®

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