PHILADELPHIA: A University of Pennsylvania junior hijacked a university server — causing it to crash — as he helped a New Zealand hacker attack several online chat sites, the FBI charged.
Ryan Goldstein, 21, was angry that one of the sites had kicked him off after a dispute, according to an indictment.
Goldstein’s arrest this month is one of several so-called “botnet” cases across the country announced by the FBI on Thursday, the same day police agencies in New Zealand were executing related search warrants.
“They view it like a computer game without appreciating that it has real-world impact,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Levy said. “There is an unreality to it.”
At Penn, reality struck on Feb. 23, 2006, when an engineering school server crashed after four days of intense traffic.
The server, which typically handles about 450 daily requests for Internet downloads, had instead gotten 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 a New Zealand hacker with the online handle “AKILL.”
The Goldstein case is part of a second round of FBI arrests this year of hackers who assume control of thousands 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, the FBI said.
The FBI estimates the economic losses from various botnet schemes at more than $20 million (€13.57 million). Several people have been sentenced across the country, while a prominent member of the botnet underground recently entered a guilty plea in California, the FBI said.
Goldstein was indicted on Nov. 1. He has since pleaded not guilty and been released on bail while awaiting a scheduled March 10 trial.
“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 school spokesman Ron Ozio, who said he could not comment on any possible disciplinary action.
The crash shut down computers at Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences for a few hours days, but did relatively little damage, Ozio said.
“It was inconvenient, but it wasn’t irreparable,” he said.
Goldstein, a bioengineering major, appears to be a bright, driven student, according to a resume posted on his Penn Web page.
A 2005 graduate of Germantown Academy, a prestigious prep school in the Philadelphia suburbs, he has spent each summer since ninth grade working in a series of technology-related jobs or research positions.
He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 (€169,630) fine if convicted of the single count of conspiracy to commit computer fraud.