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How the Feds shook hands with an internet pedophile

Crime and punishment in the digital age

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Michael Levy, a federal prosecutor who is chief of computer crimes in the US Attorney's office for Philadelphia, defended the decision not to prosecute Goldstein for child porn offenses. He said Goldstein provided valuable assistance in important criminal probes against botmasters.

"One of the big problems on the internet today are botnets, and he was clearly helping in botnet investigations," Levy says. "You need to write about all the cooperation the kid gave to us, which certainly goes into a decision about what he's charged with and how he's charged."

Levy declined to detail the investigations, except to say there were seven of them and one involved Akill, who in July was ordered to pay $10,800 after pleading guilty to six cybercrime offenses. (Levy wouldn't say whether Goldstein aided investigators in cracking down on Dshocker, the 17-year-old Massachusetts hacker who in November confessed to a three-year crime spree that included DDoS attacks, bomb threats and Swatting, which uses fraudulent emergency 911 calls to cause enemies to be raided by heavily armed police teams).

Levy also says the sentence, which calls for Goldstein to be on probation for five years, will prevent the student from carrying out any illegal activity online since a probation officer will be closely monitoring his computer usage.

But not everyone is as comfortable with the decision not to prosecute the child porn offenses.

One of them is Douglas Berman, a professor of law at Ohio State University and an expert in federal sentencing guidelines. He says Congress specifically designed child porn statutes to crack down harder on offenders who make contact with their victims.

"Absolutely, Congress wants prosecutors to be tougher on somebody who's not simply click, click, click, downloading, but being more proactive in the nature of their criminal activity with this kind of soliciting," he told The Register. "It's not just he downloaded dirty pictures but actively used chatrooms to encourage this behavior. In light of the description of the case facts, it seems like he got quite a sweetheart deal."

Mark Rasch, a former federal cyber prosecutor who is now a computer crimes specialist in Bethesda, Maryland, won't go quite that far, but the facts of the case, combined with the allegations laid out by Goldstein's former channel mates, lead him to believe sentencing guidelines would have called for Goldstein to receive from 135 months to 168 months had he been convicted for the illegal images.

Federal prosecution rules require cooperating witnesses to reveal the entire scope of their crimes before a plea agreement can be made, he says. That means either prosecutors knew of Goldstein's chatroom behavior and chose not to file charges or Goldstein hasn't been as forthcoming as he should have been.

"What this demonstrates is how much the government needs both insiders in these rings and people with technical expertise in order to successfully make these cases, so much so that they're willing to overlook some rather serious crimes," Rasch said. "Because you need these people and you need their skill sets, you're willing to bargain for them, and this may have been ultimately a bad bargain for the government." ®

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