Finland enlists convicted Lizard Squad hacker to fight cyber crime

17-year-old Julis Kivimaki, a member of the infamous Lizard Squad hacking group, was found guilty of over 50,000 counts of computer crime by a Finnish court, local media have reported, but rather than face prison time, the judge has ordered that Kivimaki himself help "fight against cyber crime".

The extent of Kivimaki's punishment will be a two-year suspended sentence, the confiscation of his computer, and being made to return some €6,500 in profits earned from cyber crime.

Kivimaki, known by the online nickname "zekill", has been hacking since age 15 and committed a wide range of attacks directed at individuals, engaging in online harassment and identity theft, as well as corporations, where he triggered data breaches, hijacking of emails, and stealing credit card information.

Lizard Squad is a shadowy group that gained widespread media attention in December for massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks that took down the Microsoft Xbox Live and Sony Playstation networks. That same month, the group also claimed responsibility for the DDoS attacks that took North Korea offline. The defacement of the Malaysia Airlines website in January was also purportedly the work of Lizard Squad. The defaced site made reference to a "cyber caliphate" and allegedly to the Isis terrorist group, although most experts believe this was just a ploy for publicity.

Justifying the light sentence, Judge Wilhelm Normann cited Kivimaki's youth as a principal factor. Normann took into account "the young age of the defendant at the time" and "his capacity to understand the harmfulness of the crimes," according to court documents quoted by the BBC.

The Finnish justice system may hope that if Kivimaki, who has a certain notoriety in the hacker community, speaks out against online crime, this will discourage other young people from hacking.

Perhaps more likely, the Finnish justice system may want Kivimaki to turn informant on some of his fellow hackers in order to help bring them to justice. They may believe that through Kivimaki they will learn more about how the elusive Lizard Squad operates.

It is also possible that the Finnish government is interested in using Kivimaki's skills. The skills of hackers often draw the interest of governments, and countries like Russia and China are said to employ hackers to engage in espionage or wage cyber attacks. And in 2013, then UK defence secretary Phillip Hammond commented that he would consider hiring cyber security experts with criminal convictions for the Ministry of Defence's Joint Cyber Reserve Unit.

At the famous Black Hat conference three years ago, Hacker Academy Founder Aaron Cohen commented that the debate about whether to hire former hackers often comes down to "how bad are they, and can they be made good", reported CSO Online.

Governments like Finland may believe that it is easier to convert younger hackers to the "good" side, but it remains to be seen whether such a technique is effective. Sparing Kivimaki jail time may have the opposite effect: other young people may believe that if they are caught, they too will escape punishment – and thus be more likely to go after some of the large profits that can be made from online crime. And if they are caught, they believe, they will be rewarded by a government job. If so, the Kivimaki ruling could conceivably lead to an increase in cyber crime rather than the reduction that the Finnish government intends.

Caroline Baylon is a specialist in internet and technology issues. She is currently the Research Associate in Science, Technology and Cyber Security at Chatham House.