Northampton University student jailed for cyber attacks

"Hacktivist" Christopher Weatherhead, of Northampton, was jailed for taking part in distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attacks on sites including Visa, Mastercard and PayPal.
"Hacktivist" Christopher Weatherhead, of Northampton, was jailed for taking part in distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attacks on sites including Visa, Mastercard and PayPal.

A student from Northampton has been jailed for 18 months for launching a series of cyber attacks that cost the website PayPal £3.5 million.

Christopher Weatherhead, aged 22, of Holly Road, Abington, was studying at the University of Northampton when he carried out the attacks as part of the world-wide hacking group Anonymous.

The university student, who was nicknamed ‘Nerdo’, was one of two self-styled ‘hacktivists’ jailed yesterday (Thursday January 24) for carrying out cyber attacks on PayPal,and targeting other sites including MasterCard, Visa and Ministry of Sound.

Weatherhead was given an 18-month sentence at Southwark Crown Court, London, after being found guilty of conspiring to impair the operation of computers between August 1, 2010 and January 22, 2011.

Weatherhead, whose barrister said would be potentially vulnerable in jail because of his “nerdiness”, did not react as he was jailed

The websites that fell victim to the cyber attacks were chosen by Anonymous, as part of so-called Operation Payback, because the hackers did not agree with their views.

Judge Peter Testar said: “It is intolerable that when an individual or a group disagrees with a particular entity’s activities they should be free to curtail that activity by means of attacks such as those which took place in this case.”

Ashley Rhodes, 28, of Bolton Crescent, Camberwell, south London, admitted the same charge and was jailed for seven months.

Co-defendant Peter Gibson, 24, of Castletown Road, Hartlepool, was deemed to have played a lesser role in the conspiracy, which he also admitted, and given a six-month suspended sentence.

Jake Birchall, 18, from Chester, will be sentenced later. He had also admitted the conspiracy.

The distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attacks paralysed computer systems by flooding them with a huge number of online requests.

Victims’ websites would be directed to a page displaying the message: “You’ve tried to bite the Anonymous hand. You angered the hive and now you are being stung.”

The attacks cost website PayPal £3.5 million in loss of trading, paying for extra staff to deal with the aftermath of the attack, and new software and hardware to defend against future attacks.

Anonymous initially targeted companies involved in anti-piracy and digital rights, including the British Recorded Music Industry (BPI), the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) and four sites operated by the Ministry of Sound.

They then shifted their attention to PayPal, MasterCard and Visa, which would not process donations to the Wau Holland Foundation, which is involved in raising funds for WikiLeaks.

Judge Testar told the court: “The purpose of these conspirators was to cause the websites of organisations to crash and therefore take them temporarily out of service.”

He noted that their aims were not to cause permanent damage or to steal information from the sites and added: “The purpose was not commercial. It was activity by way of protest.”

The court were also told that Weatherhead “played a central and integral role in the overall effectiveness” of the cyber campaign.

Birchall will be sentenced for his part in the conspiracy on February 1, at Southwark Crown Court.