Ransomware 'hero' pleads guilty to US hacking charges

Security researcher Marcus Hutchins - known online as MalwareTech - in his bedroom in Ilfracombe, Britain, in July 2017.
Security researcher Marcus Hutchins - known online as MalwareTech - in his bedroom in Ilfracombe, Britain, in July 2017.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

LONDON • A British security researcher, who was hailed as a hero for helping to stop a global ransomware cyber attack in 2017, has pleaded guilty to charges in the United States of writing malicious software in a separate case.

The researcher, Marcus Hutchins, was arrested at a Las Vegas airport in 2017, on his way back to Britain from a conference.

"As you may be aware, I've pleaded guilty to two charges related to writing malware in the years prior to my career in security," said Hutchins, known online as MalwareTech, in a statement on his website on Friday. "I regret these actions and accept full responsibility for my mistakes.

"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 faces up to five years in prison and US$250,000 (S$338,000) in fines for each of the charges, according to US court documents.

In February, a US judge refused an application from Hutchins to suppress a statement he made at the Las Vegas Airport after his arrest, when he said he had been intoxicated, the BBC reported.

In 2017, a US federal grand jury returned a six-count indictment against Hutchins.

The indictment said Hutchins, then 23, and an unidentified accomplice conspired to create and sell malware intended to steal login information and other financial data from online banking sites.

A version of the program, known as Kronos banking Trojan and created by Hutchins, was sold by the accomplice for US$2,000 in June 2015, the indictment said.

But the document did not include details of how widely the malware was used. The government has said it will move to dismiss the remaining charges in exchange for Hutchins' guilty plea.

The global cyber attack that Hutchins helped stop had disrupted Britain's National Health Service and hundreds of other organisations worldwide, spreading to more than 70 countries.

It used a variant of WannaCry, a piece of malicious software that locks victims out of their systems and demands ransoms. Hutchins was credited with disabling it.

Researchers at Symantec, a security company, attributed the attack at the time to a team of hackers known as the Lazarus Group, which US intelligence experts say is most likely linked to North Korea. The attack used computer vulnerabilities revealed in documents leaked from the US National Security Agency.

NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2019, with the headline 'Ransomware 'hero' pleads guilty to US hacking charges'. Print Edition | Subscribe