A 21-year-old computer whiz from UCLA on Wednesday was placed on probation for three years and ordered to perform 600 hours of community service for having illegally tapped into an international computer network linking research agencies and the Defense Department.
Ronald Mark Austin of Santa Monica was convicted in June by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gordon Ringer of 12 felony counts for having penetrated the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network with his home computer.
The thin, blond nuclear physics major had been held since late August at the Los Angeles County Jail and the California Institution for Men at Chino. Although Austin could have received a maximum six-year prison term, Ringer said he would follow the recommendations of a state study team, the county Probation Department and Deputy Dist. Atty. Clifton H. Garrott, all of whom called for probation.
"I have never maintained that my part in the computer break-ins was not wrong," Austin said in a three-page letter to Ringer. "(But) I feel that what I have done is much less serious than other crimes such as drunk driving in which the offenders don't suffer half as much as I have."
Austin was arrested in his Santa Monica apartment in November, 1983, and charged with having penetrated computer files of the Defense Department-funded ARPANET agency, which connects researchers across the nation. Among the member agencies whose systems he was charged with breaking into on his Commodore 64 home computer were UCLA, UC Berkeley, the Naval Research Laboratory, the University of Wisconsin, Purdue University, Cornell University, the Rand Corp. and the Norwegian Telecommunication Agency.
At the time of the arrest, then-Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Robert H. Philibosian charged that the college sophomore had caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage by tampering with data and had viewed government information that was "very sensitive."
However, Defense Department officials have since denied that Austin was able to call up classified material, and Garrott on Wednesday was unable to place a specific dollar estimate on the damage Austin caused.