Zynga hacker faces jail after $12m theft

Zynga hacker faces jail after $12m theft

By Rob Crossley

February 2nd 2011 at 1:35PM

Laws surrounding online currency are developing fast, explains game lawyer

An IT businessman is facing a substantial prison sentence after pleading guilty to stealing around $12 million in online game currency.

Ashley Mitchell, 29, based in the Devonshire costal town of Paignton, admitted to hacking into the accounts of social gaming giant Zynga.

He transferred around 400 billion virtual poker chips into his account and began selling the currency on the black market. He had made £53,000 before his arrest.

Mitchell stood to make around £184,000 from the chips, the court heard, though Zynga’s sale value of the currency is $12 million.

Judge Philip Wassall said Mitchell faced a substantial jail term for the offences, according to regional paper Herald Express.

Mitchell was remanded in custody after the case was adjourned for reports.

Digital economy

The actual value of Zynga’s intangible and instantly replicable online currency sparked a debate in court.

Prosecutor Gareth Evans said Zynga had not been, in essence, deprived of any goods. He claimed there may be a knock-on effect as more customers bought the poker chips on the black-market instead of paying Zynga.

Judge Wassell asked if the case was any different from stealing notes from the Royal Mint – the UK’s body that manufactures British currency.

Prosecutor Evans replied that, in theory, there was no difference because the mint can produce more currency if its goods were stolen.

He said there is, however, a difficulty in valuing the chips because they are digital. But if Zynga had sold them legitimately the value would have been around $12 million.

Jas Purewal, lawyer and author of Gamer/Law, explained to Develop that the case has set a new precedent.

“This shows that the legal regulation and protection of virtual goods and currency, which historically has been fairly uncertain, is evolving fast - driven partly by the boom in virtual goods sales in games.

“This case is particularly interesting because it involved a UK court recognising virtual currency - in this case, Zynga chips - as legal property which can be protected by existing UK criminal laws. 

“The court effectively found that, even though virtual currency isn't real and is infinite in supply, it still can deserve legal protection in the same way as real world currency”.

Purewal said the case is a “vindication” for Zynga and other virtual goods providers.

Hacker record

Judge Wassell heard that Mitchell’s offences were in breach of a previous suspended sentence he was handed in 2008.

Mitchell had previously been convicted of hacking into the Torbay Council website and changing his personal details.

Defence solicitor Ben Derby said as a plea in mitigation that Mitchell had been “wrestling with a gambling addition” at the time of the Zynga theft.