A New Zealand teenager accused of leading an international cyber crime network was convicted Tuesday of illegal computer hacking after pleading guilty to six charges.
Owen Thor Walker, 18, known by his online name "AKILL," was involved in a network accused of infiltrating 1.3 million computers and skimming millions of dollars from victims' bank accounts.
The case against Walker is part of an international crackdown on hackers who assume control of computers and amass them into centrally controlled clusters known as botnets. The hackers can then use the computers to steal credit card information, manipulate stock trades and even crash industry computers, authorities said when the case first surfaced in late November.
Eight people have been indicted, pleaded guilty or have been convicted since the investigation began last June. Thirteen additional warrants have been served in the U.S. and overseas in the investigation.
The charges against Walker do not directly address his alleged role as kingpin of the network, and police have released only a few details of the operation. They have not filed charges linked to the alleged skimming of millions of dollars.
Walker's lawyer said Tuesday that "complicated reparation issues" would be dealt with on the day Walker is sentenced, but he did not elaborate.
Walker pleaded guilty in the Thames District Court to two charges of accessing a computer for dishonest purpose, two charges of accessing computer systems without authorization, one of damaging or interfering with computer systems and one of possessing software for committing crime.
He faces a maximum penalty of several prison terms of up to five years.
May not face prison time
Judge Arthur Tompkins released Walker on police bail until May 28, when he will hand down sentence. Tompkins said he would consider home detention, community detention, community work and a fine for Walker. He did not mention the possibility of prison time.
Walker was arrested after an 18-month investigation by New Zealand police in collaboration with the FBI and Dutch authorities.
When he was first detained in November, police said Walker's international spybot ring had infiltrated computers around the world with malicious software. Police alleged he also was responsible for placing advertising spam on about 1.3 million computers worldwide through computers based in the Netherlands.
Spybot and botnet are jargon for infiltrating a group of computers and infecting them with malicious software that allows them to be used to collect information — mainly credit card and bank account details.
The FBI estimated that more than one million computers had been infected and put the combined economic losses at more than $20 million.