California man to plead guilty in Al-Jazeera hacks

A 24-year-old California man will appear in court on Monday to answer charges that he hijacked the Internet domain of Arabic news service Al-Jazeera in March.

In papers filed by the U.S. Attorney’s office on Monday, John William Racine II, a Web designer in Norco, California, was charged with one felony count of wire fraud and one felony count of unlawful receipt of an electronic communication.

The charges stem from an attack in March that left Doha, Qatar-based Al-Jazeera without control of its own Web site, Visitors to that site instead were forwarded to site displaying words and images in support of U.S. troops.

Racine is alleged to have used phone calls, e-mail and fraudulent documents to gain control of the Web site hosting account through which Al-Jazeera’s Web site was administered.

In a classic example of so-called “social engineering,” Racine allegedly contacted administrators at Network Solutions, a domain name registration and Web site hosting service owned by VeriSign Inc., representing himself as an Al-Jazeera Web site administrator.

He asked to update the password used to access the account, then forged a signature on authorization documents provided by Network Solutions and faxed them back to the company along with a forged ID card, according to Arif Alikhan, assistant U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California and chief of the district’s computer crime section.

Once in control of the account, Racine pointed the Al-Jazeera domain to a different Web site displaying a message in support of the U.S. war in Iraq.

In addition, Racine is alleged to have redirected e-mail sent to Al-Jazeera to a free e-mail account he set up, Alikhan said.

The government became aware of Racine’s links to the hacking attacks after he contacted the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations and admitted to diverting the Al-Jazeera traffic and intercepting the organization’s e-mail, Alikhan said.

Racine reached a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s office, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles on Thursday morning, he said.

In exchange for his “guilty” plea, the government will recommend that Racine receive a sentence of three years probation and 1000 hours of community service, in addition to a fine of US$1,500. Racine will also be asked to pay restitution to his victims, Alikhan said.

With the commencement of the U.S. war on Iraq, Al-Jazeera’s Internet properties became popular targets of so-called “patriotic” hackers in the West, especially after the network posted images of U.S. prisoners of war being interrogated by their Iraqi captors.

Al-Jazeera’s Arabic language Web site and a hastily assembled English language site suffered sustained denial of service attacks and were inaccessible for long stretches of time.

Racine is not believed to be involved in those attacks and none of the charges brought against him relate to those attacks, Alikhan said.

Racine will be appearing at the federal court on Monday, at which time a hearing will be scheduled for a judge to hear his plea, Alikhan said.

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