Why This Hacker Was Arrested
The super-secretive hacker known as MalwareTech became famous when he dismantled the WannaCry computer virus, one of the most alarming privacy threats in recent memory. But the praise was cut short when the hacker was arrested by the FBI for creating a virus that gave digital thieves access to people’s banking credentials. Was he just doing research to stop criminal activity or engaging in criminal activity himself?
In May 2017, hundreds of thousands of computers around the world were hit by the WannaCry computer virus. At the time it was the biggest cyber-attack in history—but quick thinking and a bit of luck by an independent security researcher stopped the spread of the worm the same day it hit.
Targeting the Microsoft Windows operating system, the core of the exploit was developed by the United States National Security Agency (NSA) and known in hacker circles as EternalBlue after the Shadow Brokers hacker group leaked it in April 2017.
Just one month later, May 12, 2017, the WannaCry malware was unleashed, quickly commandeering computers around the world and locking government and business users, as well as individuals, out of their computers with a $300 demand—paid in Bitcoin or cash—to access their personal data.
But the same day the WannaCry virus hit, a security researcher and anonymous blogger named MalwareTech (later revealed as UK security researcher Marcus Hutchins) happened upon a clever fix. He realized that if he registered the domain that was being used in the code as a DNS sinkhole, he could stop the spread of the virus.
And although it wouldn’t help computers that had already been affected, MalwareTech’s work helped limit the spread of the virus and helped security researchers defeat the worm just days after it was initially released.
But later that year, the 23-year-old hero hacker was arrested by the FBI in Las Vegas as he attempted to return home after attending the Black Hat and DEF CON security conferences.
He was accused of creating a piece of malware called Kronos, which was used by other hackers to steal banking information from infected machines. Now, those in the hacker community are worried that the knowledge that allows someone to defeat a piece of malware such as the WannaCry virus is the same set of skills that can get them in trouble when they’re trying to protect computer systems from rouge actors.
But in the time since we produced this video, the hacker arrested for work he purportedly did as a minor pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to create and distribute the Kronos and UPAS KIT trojans.
An additional eight charges were also brought against Hutchins, but on July 26, 2019, he was let go—freed for time served as part of a plea deal that dropped the eight extra charges but required him to plead guilty to the Kronos and UPAS KIT activity.
As the verdict was announced, Hutchins celebrated on Twitter and thanked the judge, his lawyers and persons who sent in character letters for his case.
Hutchins may have been celebrated when he dismantled the WannaCry virus, but in the eyes of the law he was a criminal. So, what is he? Hero or foe? That remains contentious.
If you’re inspired by this story, read about the Pirate Party election and the man applying his “hacking for good” principles to politics.