Hackers Ordered to Work for Government

Two Cambodian hackers who once sought to topple the government by infiltrating its websites to reveal sensitive information were on Tuesday handed a suspended sentence, released from prison and ordered to work for the Interior Ministry, according to their attorney and a ministry official.

Bun Khing Mongkul Panha, 21, who goes by the online nicknames Sex Machine and Black Cyber, and Chou Songheng, 21, who goes by Zoro, spent the past five months in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison after being arrested on april 7 for hacking 30 government and private-sector websites, and stealing data.

The arrests followed an eight-month investigation by the National Police and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday found Mr. Panha and Mr. Songheng guilty of four charges—including unauthorized access to or remaining in an automated data-processing system and obstructing the functioning of an automated data-processing system—and sentenced the pair to two years in prison.

But Judge Ros Piseth suspended their sentences, prescribed their release from pretrial detention and ordered them to work for the Ministry of Interior, according to Dim Chaoseng, the pair’s lawyer.

“The two have to work at the internal security department at the Interior Ministry,” he said.

“They don’t have any other skills besides their computer skills,” he said. “If they remained in prison, they would continue to destroy the nation [when they are released].”

Mr. Chaoseng said he did not know what exactly his clients would be tasked with doing while working for the government.

Lieutenant General Chhay Sinarith, director of the Interior Ministry’s internal security department, confirmed that the hackers would soon be joining his team, but offered no further details.

“I received the news from my inferior. I have not received the verdict letter yet,” he said. “It is a good idea. It will be very useful to use their abilities to serve the nation and society.”

At the time of their arrest, Mr. Panha and Mr. Songheng, alleged members of local hacking group Anonymous Cambodia—a police video shows officers finding a Guy Fawkes mask during a search of Mr. Panha’s room—were third-year students at the SETEC Institute, a Phnom Penh-based university offering degrees in information technology.

Mr. Panha confessed to hacking the website, while Mr. Songheng said he had only been Mr. Panha’s student.

Following their arrest, members of Anonymous Cambodia and the global group Anonymous attacked a number of Cambodian government and corporate websites in retaliation. Three other local hackers were arrested in the weeks that followed.

At Prey Sar prison Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Songheng’s family waited outside for his release.

“I will ask my son to continue his studies, and I am very happy that he is being ordered to work at the internal security department,” said his mother, Than Sopheap.

At 4:38 p.m., Mr. Songheng and Mr. Panha were escorted out of the main prison gate and quickly ushered to a police motorbike, which sped away.

Mark Rasch, former head of the U.S. department of Justice’s computer crime unit, said Judge Piseth’s decision to order Mr. Songheng and Mr. Panha to work for the government was unusual—and “dangerous.”

“It is dangerous for a government to do this, because hackers can continue to work [on their own projects],” Mr. Rasch said by telephone from Washington.

“Also, if the court orders them to hack into a system in Cambodia or elsewhere and something is damaged, who pays? Who is responsible?”

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