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How the Feds shook hands with an internet pedophile

Crime and punishment in the digital age

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Enter Digerati

Digerati first appeared in #ssgroup in late 2005. On the surface, his participation was unremarkable. He often regaled his mates with intelligent discussions about bots, trojans, and even Judaism. And he demonstrated a rare combination of technical acumen and deep connections in the hacker world.

Within a few weeks, the #ssgroup elders made him a channel operator, a designation that carried plenty of status in some hacker circles because it allowed him to exercise a great deal of control. Ejecting rowdy visitors, bestowing operator status on others, and protecting the channel from hostile attacks were all part of his responsibilities. But there were unsettling elements to Digerati that became more apparent with time.

"When he started coming into the room, it always circled around sex," Campbell recalls.

Things came to a head in January 2006, when Digerati betrayed his penchant for online sex with boys. During an online gathering with webcams to celebrate Campbell's 25th birthday, he exposed himself before the entire gathering, which included members as young as 13 years old. According to three people present, he repeatedly engaged the younger members in private messages the elders were later able to access.

"He took off his pants and underwear," Campbell says. "He was encouraging them to join him, daring them, calling them chickens. After that night, I started fighting with the admins on the site to ban him."

About a month later, the #ssgroup leaders yanked Digerati's coveted operator status. Almost immediately, the attacks began - distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks so potent they caused #ssgroup and Taunet, the IRC server that hosted the channel, to become completely unreachable. The data floods were so fierce they sometimes inflicted damage on Taunet's internet service company as well. Taunet switched to a company that claimed it was able to withstand DDoS attacks, but the move didn't help.

"We were always DDoSed off the freaking net," Ward laments.

Over the next year, Digerati's online opponents would resort to a variety of tactics to get the hacker off their backs, but none of them worked. When diplomacy failed, they reported his repeated online liaisons with boys to university officials and then to the FBI. When those efforts bore no fruit, some opponents formed a vigilante posse that hacked the university's servers and spammed students and administrators with hundreds of flyers emblazoned with Digerati's portrait and a detailed description of his alleged online conduct.

After learning Digerati was under suspicion for hacking offenses, the posse even hacked into the university's mail system and intercepted hundreds of emails sent between school administrators and FBI investigators discussing their probe.

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Next page: The Grooming

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