updated 11/29/2007 6:44:31 PM ET 2007-11-29T23:44:31

A University of Pennsylvania student and a New Zealand hacker hijacked a university computer server last year, the FBI charged Thursday, part of an investigation into cyber-attacks called "botnets."

The indictment of Ryan Goldstein, 21, of Ambler, is part of a larger international probe into the criminal use of "botnets," in which hackers gain control of third-party computers through malicious software and then use them as remote-controlled robots to crash online systems, accept spam and steal users' personal information.

Eight people have been indicted, pleaded guilty or convicted since the investigation started in June. Thirteen additional warrants have been served in the U.S. and overseas in the investigation, which the FBI says has uncovered more than $20 million in economic losses.

Authorities in New Zealand this week searched the residence of an 18-year-old suspected to be the ringleader of the group that has infected more than 1 million computers, the FBI said. The federal agency identified the person by the online handle "AKILL."

AKILL and Goldstein were involved in crashing a University of Pennsylvania engineering school server Feb. 23, 2006, authorities allege.

The server, which typically handles about 450 daily requests for Internet downloads, instead got 70,000 requests from the account of an unsuspecting Penn student over four days. Over time, the FBI followed an electronic trail from that student's account to Goldstein's screen name, "Digerati," and the New Zealand hacker.

The crash briefly shut down computers at Penn's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, but did relatively little damage, university spokesman Ron Ozio said.

Goldstein was indicted Nov. 1. He has pleaded not guilty and was released on bail while awaiting a trial set for March 10.

He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted of the single count of conspiracy to commit computer fraud.

"We feel the charges are inflated," defense lawyer Ronald Levine said Thursday. "We think this is kind of an exaggerated case."

Goldstein did not return phone messages left by The Associated Press on his cell phone and his parents' home in Ambler. He remains enrolled at Penn, according to Ozio, who said he could not comment on possible disciplinary action.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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