Marcus Hutchins, British security researcher best known for stopping the WannaCry ransomware outbreak, has pleaded guilty to federal charges for writing malware.
In a statement, Hutchins says the activity occurred "in the years prior to my career in security."
"I regret these actions and accept full responsibility for my mistakes," he writes. "Having grown up, I've since been using the same skills that I misused several years ago for constructive purposes. I will continue to devote my time to keeping people safe from malware attacks."
Hutchins, who operates his blog and Twitter handle under the name MalwareTech, was arrested in August 2017 after the Black Hat USA and DEF CON cybersecurity conferences in Las Vegas. Federal authorities charged Hutchins, then 24, with the creation and distribution of Kronos banking malware – designed to lift online banking data – between July 2014 and 2015.
The FBI handed down a six-count indictment, accusing Hutchins of conspiring to commit computer fraud, illegally accessing computers, and distributing and advertising an illegal communication-interception device, among other allegations. Hutchins pleaded not guilty to all of the above and was released on bail but not allowed to return home to the United Kingdom.
Fast-forward to June 2018, when a superceding indictment tacked on four new charges. Three accused Hutchins of writing and distributing Upas Kit malware; one accused him of lying to the FBI about his role in Kronos. Authorities alleged that Hutchins created Upas, which steals credentials and data on target systems, and gave it to a co-conspirator who sold it for $1,500.
Hutchins has now pleaded guilty to two charges: one with conspiracy; the other with a violation of U.S.C. Title 18, Section 2512. The latter describes conduct involving devices "primarily useful for the purpose of the surreptitious interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications," as stated by the DoJ. The government will dismiss the remaining charges.
With these two counts, Hutchins faces a penalty of up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines, as stated in a plea agreement filed with the Eastern District of Washington. The agreement does note that "acceptance of responsibility" can reduce his sentence.
The security researcher rose to infosec fame in May 2017 when he stopped the global WannaCry ransomware attack by registering a domain he spotted in the malware. His move had a "kill switch" effect, which essentially halted the spread of WannaCry around the world.
His 2017 arrest stunned the cybersecurity community. Many had trouble believing the charges against him, and many shared opinions on the legal battle. Some, like George Washington University Law School professor Orin Kerr, said the government was overly aggressive and would struggle to prove things like malicious intent. "For the charge to fit the statute, the government has to prove two things that it may or may not be able to prove," he said.
Some professionals have expressed disappointment and concern about what this could mean for the future of security research, where white-hat hackers venture into gray areas when it comes to exploring malware and other cybersecurity threats.
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