Computer Hacker's Term May Exceed U.S. Guidelines


A federal judge signaled his intention Monday to slap admitted computer hacker Kevin Poulsen with a jail term tougher than federal guidelines allow.

"The defendant's actions are more serious than the guidelines take into account," said U.S. District Judge Manuel Real, referring to sentencing guidelines which limit a federal judge's discretion in imposing punishment. "They are not really designed for this kind of matter, where a person puts (law enforcement) agents in jeopardy."

Poulsen used his expertise in computers and an intimate knowledge of telephone operations to seize control of the lines of Los Angeles radio stations KIIS-FM and KPWR-FM in 1990 and win luxury cars and $50,000 in cash.

But what apparently upset Real most was Poulsen's entry into a computer from which he tried to obtain the names of undercover businesses operated by the FBI.

"This wasn't just hacking," Real said at the hearing.

The judge's tough stance comes less than two weeks after a nationwide electronic manhunt netted the nation's most notorious fugitive hacker, Kevin Mitnick.

Although Mitnick has been the focus of widespread publicity lately, some computer crime experts consider Poulsen to be perhaps the most skilled hacker of all. Poulsen's parents said that in his last call from jail, Poulsen said he was surprised that Mitnick "was still out there doing it."

Poulsen, who has been in jail for nearly four years, longer than any other hacker in history, earlier pleaded guilty to seven counts of conspiracy, fraud and intercepting wire communications in connection with the contest-rigging scheme.

Real rescheduled Poulsen's sentencing for rigging the contests--considered to be the hacker underground's most audacious exploit--until April 10 in order to give defense attorney Michael J. Brennan time to present arguments in opposition to a stiffer penalty. The defense had hoped Real would impose a sentence equal to or less than the time Poulsen has already served.

But the judge said he felt Poulsen's intrusions called for a "more serious" sentence than that allowed by an undisclosed plea agreement worked out by the defense and prosecution. Under federal sentencing guidelines, each count carries a range of penalties, but Real said he wanted to go beyond that range.

Assistant U.S. Atty. David Schindler refused to explain details of the plea bargain, saying they are secret.

He denied that Real's intention of departing from federal sentencing guidelines in Poulsen's case was influenced by the arrest of Mitnick or any other hacking cases.

"The court is attempting to address solely Mr. Poulsen's conduct," Schindler said.

Poulsen faces separate charges of espionage for acquiring a classified 1987 Air Force order listing targets in case of nuclear war.

Poulsen's parents, Lee and Bernadine Poulsen, were sitting in the front row in court when their son, smiling, with his short brown hair parted in the middle, was brought in before sentencing.

"It's nervous time," said Lee Poulsen, 59, a retired mechanic. "I'm just keeping my fingers crossed."

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, as did Mitnick, Poulsen taught himself how to use a computer on a TRS 80 Radio Shack model and got a job in the 1980s testing computer security for the Pentagon.

After his arrest in 1988, he fled and was captured three years later in a supermarket, after the television show "America's Most Wanted" profiled him.

Though Poulsen faces up to 40 years in prison in Los Angeles, the espionage case in San Jose is potentially more serious. Poulsen is the first hacker to be charged with espionage--charges resulting from the search of a storage locker in Menlo Park where the classified targets list was found in 1988.

The search was first ruled illegal, but a federal appeals court said in December that because the rent was more than two weeks past due the owner of the locker could seize the contents and turn them over to authorities.

Poulsen is facing 13 other charges in that case, including eavesdropping on private telephone conversations, and tapping into Pacific Bell's computer as well as an unclassified military computer network.

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