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Computing student jailed after failing to hand over crypto keys

Sledgehammer once again used to crack a nut

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

+Comment A computer science student accused of hacking offences has been jailed for six months for failing to hand over his encryption passwords, which he had been urged to do in "the interests of national security".

Christopher Wilson, 22, of Mitford Close, Washington, Tyne and Wear, was jailed for refusing to hand over his computer passwords, a move that frustrated an investigation into claims he launched an attack on a police website.

Wilson, who has Asperger's Syndrome, was suspected of "trolling" the Northumbria Police as well as attempting to break into the Serious Organised Crime Agency's website.

In particular, he was accused of phoning in a fake warning of an impending cyber attack against Northumbria Police that was convincing enough for the force to temporarily suspend its site as a precaution once a small attack started. Wilson also allegedly used a voice changing device in order to fool the authorities.

He was also accused of advocating the posting of deliberately inflammatory messages on a Facebook condolence page set up for two female police officers shot dead in Manchester.

Wilson only came to the attention of police in October 2012 after he allegedly emailed warnings about an online threat against one of the staff at Newcastle University. Two threatening messages sent to the vice chancellor of Newcastle University were traced to systems at Northumbria University, where Wilson was studying for a master's degree in computers at the time. The messages stated someone - who supposedly had access to a handgun and ammunition - was making threats online to kill a member of Newcastle University staff.

The threatening emails came from computer servers linked to Wilson. Police obtained a warrant on this basis and raided his home in Washington, where they seized various items of computer equipment.

Wilson denied making the threats and the prosecution for those offences was eventually dropped. However, over this time, Wilson became a suspect in the threats against Northumbria Police. Investigators wanted to examine his encrypted computer but the passwords supplied by Wilson turned out to be incorrect.

None of the 50 passwords he provided worked. Frustration with his lack of co-operation prompted police to obtained an order from a judge compelling him to turn over the correct passphrase last year. A judge ordered him to turn over these passwords on the grounds of national security but Wilson still failed to comply, earning him six months behind bars.

Refusal to hand over crypto keys is a violation of section 49 of RIPA, the UK's sometimes controversial wiretapping law.

Judge Simon Hickey said during a hearing at Newcastle Crown Court:

What you were doing was for your own satisfaction, showing what you could do with your undoubted skill with computers.

But this is a serious offence and I can’t avoid an immediate custodial sentence. ®

Comment

The “refusal to hand over crypto keys” provisions were put into RIPA by legislators on the basis that the measure was needed for the investigation of terrorism and serious crimes. However, the latest case, like others before it, has involved the investigation of far less serious offences.

"Minor DDoS attacks on Police & University websites do not justify use of 'national security' in ‪#RIPA‬ s49 forced crypto key handover notice," said SpyBlog in an update on Twitter.

More on the case can be found in a story by the Daily Mail here and a local report by the Newcastle Chronicle (here) and the Sunderland Echo (here).

A more technical perspective - and a comparison with comparable US laws - is given in a post on Sophos' Naked Security blog here.

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