In a stunning move, federal authorities have arrested Marcus Hutchins, a researcher who earlier this year was credited with stopping the rapidly expanding WannaCry ransomware attack that spanned 150 countries in a matter of days.
Hutchins, a UK resident who also goes by the alias "MalwareTech," was indicted by a US federal grand jury on six counts relating to the creation and distribution of Kronos malware, according to a review of the complaint filed in the US District Court in the Eastern District of Wisconsin.
The indictment centers on his alleged creation of the Kronos malware and the alleged subsequent advertising and sale of the malware on Internet forums, such as the now defunct AlphaBay market forum, from July 2014 to July 2015.
A second defendant is listed in the indictment, but the name is blacked out. This defendant allegedly showed the functionality of the Kronos banking Trojan via a video posted on a publicly available Internet site in July 2014. He or she then allegedly offered to sell the banking Trojan for $3,000 on an Internet forum in the following month, according to the indictment.
Around February 2015, Hutchins and the second defendant allegedly updated Kronos' malware, and in April of that year advertised its availability on the now defunct AlphaBay Dark Web market forum, the indictment states. Then in June 2015, the other defendant allegedly sold the Kronos malware for approximately $2,000 in digital currency and then offered Kronos crypting services.
In late 2016, the Kelihos botnet was seen loading Kronos on computers via a phishing attack. Earlier this year, DOJ officials announced that the Kelihos botnet had been dismantled.
Federal authorities were deep into their two-year investigation into Kronos when the WannaCry ransomware attack emerged in May of this year and swept through a large footprint of countries.
Hutchins, who managed to stop the spread of the WannaCry attack shortly after it started with his kill switch, ironically, may have already been the target of the grand jury investigation when he became the accidental hero of the WannaCry outbreak.
The grand jury, nonetheless, delivered a six-count indictment against Hutchins on July 11, roughly two weeks before the start of Black Hat USA and DEF CON in Las Vegas, where Hutchins was scheduled to attend. Authorities arrested Hutchins in Las Vegas on Wednesday.
The indictment against Hutchins includes one count of conspiracy to commit computer fraud and abuse, three counts of distributing and advertising an electronic communication interception device, one count of trying to intercept electronic communications, and one count of attempting to access a computer without authorization, the DOJ stated in its announcement.
Some industry watchers, however, remain skeptical about the grounds for Hutchins' arrest. On Twitter, Alan Woodward (@ProfWoodward) tweeted: "Bearing in mind he tracks botnets and Kronos is a botnet, potential for this being a big misunderstanding. FBI enforcing a DoJ indictment."
Other skeptics include Swati Khandelwal, who via Twitter noted that on July 13, 2014, Hutchins posted a tweet that read: "Anyone got a kronos sample?"
Khandelwal then tweeted: "Creator asking for his own malware sample…doesn't this sound strange to the FBI?"
Meanwhile, the DoJ told Dark Reading that the second defendant's name remains under seal and information relating to the individual "won't be released for awhile."