WELLINGTON, New Zealand – A New Zealand teenager allegedly at the center of an international cyber crime network appeared Friday in court where he was charged with computer hacking crimes.
Computer programmer Owen Thor Walker, 18, was charged with two counts of accessing a computer for dishonest purpose, damaging or interfering with a computer system, possessing software for committing crime, and two counts of accessing a computer system without authorization.
The charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Walker did not enter a plea when he appeared briefly in Thames Magistrate's Court in northern New Zealand. He was released on bail. Bail conditions were not immediately available.
Walker was arrested in November last year in the northern city of Hamilton as part of an international investigation into a cyber crime network accused of infiltrating 1.3 million computers and skimming millions of dollars from victims' bank accounts.
"We worked closely with U.S. and Dutch authorities on this investigation. This arrest is significant not just to New Zealand but the international community as well," police spokesman Detective Inspector Peter Devoy said.
"Very few people who carry out this sort of offending are ever prosecuted so the resolution of this case has huge international implications," he said. He did not elaborate.
The case is part of an international crackdown on hackers who allegedly 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, authorities said when the case first surfaced in late November.
When he was first detained, police said the teenager, known by his cyber identification "AKILL," was head of an international spybot ring that has infiltrated computers round the world with their malicious software.
Police said he was also responsible for placing advertising spam on about 1.3 million computers worldwide through computers based in the Netherlands.
Police questioned the New Zealand teenager last year and eventually released him without charge, saying he was still part of the investigation. Friday's hearing was the first time charges against him were detailed.
Eight people have been indicted, pleaded guilty or have been convicted since the investigation began last June. Thirteen additional warrants have been served in the U.S. and overseas in the investigation.
The FBI estimates that more than one million computers have been infected and puts the combined economic losses at more than $20 million.