Two students have admitted hacking Fine Gael's website – in the weeks leading up to the 2011 general election – as a “stunt” to embarrass the party.
Computer experts Darren Martyn (aged 21) from Cloonbeggin, Claregalway, Galway, and 20-year-old Donncha O Cearrbhail from The Ring, Birr, Co. Offaly are the first to be successfully prosecuted in Ireland for computer hacking and will be sentenced in October.
The high-tech whizzkids, who used the online aliases 'Raepsauce' and 'Palladium', had been identified by the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation in conjunction with US law enforcement agency the FBI, Dublin District Court heard.
They pleaded guilty today to criminal damage to the www.finegael2011.ie website, which was defaced, had its database stolen and was knocked offline for 24 hours after it was hacked on January 9, 2011 – seven weeks before the general election.
The site – set up for the election campaign– had invited readers to submit comments and contact details and had just under 2,000 subscribers.
Mr Martyn studies forensic science and analysis, at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT); co-defendant Donncha O Cearrbhail – who is the son of Offaly Independent Councillor John Carroll – is a student of medicinal chemistry at Trinity College Dublin.
The Director of Public Prosecutions had decided that the pair should be tried by “summary disposal”, at district court level, only if they pleaded guilty to the cybercrime. Otherwise they would face trial before a judge and jury in a Circuit Criminal Court which can impose tougher sentences.
Today the students' lawyers indicated that guilty pleas were being entered.
In evidence, Garda fraud squad officers told Judge Ann Ryan that on January 9, 2011, the www.finegael2011.ie site had been hacked.
Detectives Marion Brennan and Paul Johnstone told Dublin District Court that the pair replaced the text on the site with the words “owned by Raepsauce and Palladium”.
The site's subscribers' database was stolen and published on the internet and was also sent to a journalist.
The site was inaccessible for 24 hours and according to Fine Gael it cost €10,000 to get it up and running again. No one suffered as a result of the subscriber list data being taken, the judge also noted.
Det Gda Brennan agreed with Martyn's solicitor Matthew Kenny that “it was a stunt to embarrass a political party rather than to disclose data to the public at large”.
Mr Kenny said the GMIT student, who has no prior criminal convictions, had made full admissions, co-operated with the investigation and had pleaded guilty at an early stage.
The young computer expert “is a poacher turned gamekeeper” and now uses his skills to help prevent websites being hacked. He has “attracted contracts from the UK such is the level of his expertise,” Mr Kenny also said.
The student was willing to pay for his share of the damage but his family were of limited means and he would need time to get the money, Judge Ryan was told.
Solicitor Eugene Dunne, for O Cearrbhail, asked the court to note that his client was aged 17 at the time and has no previous criminal convictions, and had also pleaded guilty at an early stage.
The Trinity student was also willing to pay for the damage caused to the website, he said.
The offence, at district court level, can led to a conviction, a fine and can carry a maximum 12-month jail term.
Judge Ryan described the offence as “a terrible abuse of talent” and said they had used their expertise in “a criminal way”. She warned that it could result in possible sentences but noted that the offence had not caused any long-term problems.
She adjourned the case until October to let them each bring €5,000 to court to pay for the damage to the Fine Gael site. She also asked the Probation Service to prepare a restorative justice report on the hackers.
This can involve a meeting between the offender and the victim to discuss the impact of the crime as well as a letter of apology and an action plan of activities.
The judge indicated that if the money is paid and the report is positive, the Probation Act would be applied which would see the students spared custodial sentences and criminal records.
The pair, who were accompanied to the hearing by family members, did not address the court and were remanded on continuing bail pending sentence after the judge heard that they were found to be suitable for inclusion in the restorative justice programme.