LONDON (Reuters) - Four British hackers who took part in 2011 cyber-attacks on targets ranging from the CIA to Sony were audacious, arrogant men whose motivation was "anarchic self-amusement", a court heard on Wednesday.
The men, who have pleaded guilty to a variety of offences, were members of the hacking collective LulzSec, which caused millions of dollars of damage to corporate and government computer networks during an online crime spree that they boasted about on Twitter.
"They are at the cutting edge of a contemporary, emerging species of international criminal offending known as cyber crime," prosecutor Sandip Patel told a London court at the start of the men's sentencing hearing.
Among other attacks, the men hacked into Pentagon computers, crashed the CIA's website, stole millions of items of private individuals' data such as passwords and user names from companies including Fox and Sony and posted them online on sites such as Pirate Bay.
"LulzSec saw themselves as latter-day pirates," Patel said, who described them as being motivated by "anarchic self-amusement".
Their exploits, as they described them, also included hacking into News International's computer system to post a fake story, purporting to be from the Sun tabloid, announcing that owner Rupert Murdoch had committed suicide.
Ryan Cleary, 21, whose online moniker was ViraL, had constructed an illegal network of computers known as a "botnet" through which he was covertly in control of up to 100,000 computers at a time.
Cleary, who has pleaded guilty to six charges relating to computer misuse, provided the botnet to other hackers so they could attack websites by flooding them with traffic.
Cleary, who has Asperger's syndrome, became obsessed with computers during a childhood and adolescence spent alone in his bedroom without friends, his lawyer John Cooper told the court.
In addition to the hacking offences, Cleary has pleaded guilty to charges of downloading pornographic images of babies and children, including rape scenes.
Cooper said he was "not some career sexual pervert" but rather that the images were also part of his compulsive behaviour, driven by Asperger's.
"He was obsessed with his computer and with what he could find on his computer," the lawyer said.
In the dock alongside Cleary were Ryan Ackroyd, 26; Mustafa Al-Bassam, 18, and Jake Davis, 20. In their hacker days, they were known as Kayla, tFlow and Topiary, respectively.
The court heard that Davis, who has pleaded guilty to two counts, had become a reclusive Internet obsessive during an isolated childhood marked by several tragic deaths in the remote Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland.
"Without friends, he sought companionship in cyberspace, a world that is artificial and potentially corrosive. He was sucked into a chain of events," said Davis's lawyer, Simon Mayo.
Lawyers for Ackroyd and Bassam, who have pleaded guilty to one and two counts respectively, will address the court about mitigating factors regarding those two defendants on Thursday, after which judge is expected to pass sentence on the four.
Patel said LulzSec was a splinter group that had evolved out of Anonymous, a bigger, shapeless "hacktivist" collective, but that LulzSec lacked the libertarian political agenda of Anonymous.
The name LulzSec is a combination of "lulz", a distortion of the commonly used "LOL" or "laugh out loud", and security.
The alleged ringleader of LulzSec was U.S.-based Hector Xavier Monsegur, known as "Sabu", who was arrested in June 2011 but agreed to cooperate, maintaining his online persona for a time and leading the FBI to other members of the group.
Editing by Alison Williams