Hacker Receives Harshest Punishment for a Computer Crime in US History

Albert Gonzalez was sentenced to 20 years in prison, the harshest punishment for a computer crime ever handed down in an American court. Yet, despite this small victory in the war on cybercrime, law enforcement officials still face major problems as online attacks are on the rise and the difficulty of tracking cybercriminals remains a constant struggle in the battle for cybersecurity.

The infamous hacker Albert Gonzalez was sentenced in U.S. District Court to 20 years in prison for stealing approximately 130 million credit and debit card numbers. Gonzalez played a major role in a crime ring that hacked into the computer networks of Heartland Payment Systems, a company that processes credit and debit card transactions for more than 250,000 businesses. Some of the major companies compromised by the attacks include Visa, American Express, Hannaford Supermarkets, and 7-Eleven. Due to the scale of the fraud, prosecutors in the case referred to these crimes as “unparalleled” online theft.

The sentencing, handed down on Friday, March 26, will run concurrently with two other 20-year terms, also meted out in U.S. District Court on the previous day, Thursday, March 25. Gonzalez pleaded guilty in all three cases in December 2009. At his sentencing he stated, “I accept full responsibility for these actions … I understand that the road to redemption is going to be long for me.”

The recent punishment of one of America’s most notorious cybercriminals also sheds light on a disturbing trend: the number of cyberattacks is increasing at a rapid pace. While the harsh punishment for Gonzalez is a step in the right direction, cybercrime is still on the rise. According to The 2009 Annual Report by the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a partnership between the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), cybercrime complaints numbered 336,655 in 2009, a 22.3 percent increase from the previous year. Moreover, these attacks totaled $559.7 million in stolen funds, a 111 percent rise from 2008.

In addition to a rising cybercrime rate, Gonzalez’s illegal actions are also particularly troubling in the ways in which they display how cybercriminals are becoming more sophisticated in the planning and scope of their attacks. For a portion of the crimes for which he was sentenced, Gonzalez was the mastermind of the crime ring, overseeing a group of hackers he knew personally. However, for the attacks on Heartland Payment Systems, Gonzalez worked with an international network of cybercriminals, known only to each other in cyberspace.

Law enforcement agencies will have to ramp up their efforts in order to keep up with elite hackers, who can remain easily hidden due to the anonymity of the internet. Hopefully, Gonzalez’s punishment will serve as a warning to the future generation of hackers as it proves that the US is serious in cracking down on these types of malicious acts.




IC3 Website: http://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx

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