A GMIT student and his co-accused have admitted hacking into Fine Gael’s website in the lead-up to the 2011 general election as part of a “stunt” to embarass the party.
The men, who used online aliases ‘Raepsauce’ and ‘Palladium’, had been identified by the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation in conjunction with US law enforcement agency the FBI.
Computer experts Darren Martyn (21 ) of Cloonbiggeen, Claregalway, Galway, and 20-year-old Donncha O Cearrbhail of The Ring, Birr, County Offaly both appeared before Dublin District Court on Tuesday where they pleaded guilty 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 offence, at district court level, could lead to a conviction, a fine, and can carry a maximum 12 month jail term.
Martyn, who studies forensic science and analysis at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, and O Cearrbhail, a student of medicinal chemistry at Trinity College Dublin, have both been ordered to come up with €5,000 compensation each in time for the sentencing hearing which will be held in October.
The court heard how the Director of Public Prosecutions had consented to the matter being tried by summary disposal at district court level only on a plea of guilty. 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 Johstone told Dublin District Court that the pair replaced the text on the site with the words “owned by Raepsauce and Palladium”.
The site, set up for the election campaign, had invited readers to submit comments and contact details and had just under 2,000 subscribers. As a result of the hacking 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.
Detective Garda 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 previous 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 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.
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 the offence had not caused any long-term problems. She adjourned the case until October to let the defendants 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. 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 they were found to be suitable for inclusion in the restorative justice programme.