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How the Feds shook hands with an internet pedophile

Crime and punishment in the digital age

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Editor's Note added on April 8, 2010

On March 17, 2010, almost 13 months after this article was published, Michael Johnson, one of the individuals quoted in this article, contacted The Register to recant claims he made about Ryan Goldstein.

"It was a false and fabricated account, which was created because the pressure from the community to discredit Mr Goldstein," he wrote in an email. "I was out to harm Ryan Goldstein, not to ruin his life. However, i can't say the same for others, which is maybe what [sic] they are adamant that their statement is infact [sic] a true account."

Johnson declined to elaborate on the pressure he allegedly received or to provide support for those claims. In order to alert our readers to this development, The Register is adding this editor's note and striking a line through the 55-word passage that contains Johnson's account.

As former moderators for an internet relay channel dedicated to hacking, Francine Campbell and Sterlin Ward have seen some of the net's darker quarters. But nothing prepared them for their group's encounter with an internet pedophile who called himself Digerati.

After the hacker repeatedly propositioned channel members as young as 13 to engage in graphic webcam sex, Campbell and Ward alerted the FBI and officials at the University of Pennsylvania, where Digerati attended classes and got his internet access. Digerati - whose real name is Ryan Goldstein - was eventually prosecuted, but the experience left the channel elders - and some law-enforcement experts - critical of what they characterize as a Faustian deal

In exchange for Goldstein's help prosecuting seven cases involving botnets, federal prosecutors agreed to charge him with a single misdemeanor hacking charge for damage he inflicted on a University of Pennsylvania server. In October, he received just three months in prison despite being caught with about 1,000 images of child pornography.

For Francine Campbell, Sterlin Ward, and others on the #ssgroup IRC channel, it was a bitter lesson in the vagaries of crime and punishment in the digital age.

"I think protecting kids would be way more important than monetary damages to a server," says Ward, a 35-year-old networking analyst who took an early stand against Goldstein's online grooming of underage members. "I felt that he was going to eventually find a kid that was close enough for a meetup."

Ronald Levine, a Philadelphia-based attorney representing Goldstein, issued the following statement: "Mr. Goldstein denies this allegation. He admitted the misdemeanor computer intrusion conduct with which he was charged; he received a probationary sentence; and he is committed to moving forward with his life productively."

But Goldstein's former online associates stand by the accusations, and they presented emails and chat logs that appeared to back them up. In their minds, the episode shows the sometimes misplaced priorities of law enforcement and university administrators.

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Next page: Enter Digerati

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