Three young hackers went from believing they were “untouchable” to helping the FBI stop future cyberattacks.
The trio of hackers behind the Mirai botnet — one of the most powerful tools used for cyberattacks — has been working with the FBI for more than a year, according to court documents filed last week.
Now, the government is recommending they be sentenced to continue working with the FBI, instead of a maximum five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
“By working with the FBI, the defendants assisted in thwarting potentially devastating cyberattacks and developed concrete strategies for mitigating new attack methods,” US attorneys said in a motion filed Sept. 11. “The information provided by the defendants has been used by members of the cybersecurity community to safeguard US systems and the Internet as a whole.”
Originally, a probation officer on the case recommended that all three defendants be sentenced to five years’ probation and 200 hours of community service.
Because of their help, prosecutors have asked that the community service requirement be bumped up to 2,500 hours — which would include “continued work with the FBI on cybercrime and cybersecurity matters.”
The three defendants are set to be sentenced by a federal judge in Alaska. The sentencing plea Tuesday was earlier reported by Wired.
Governments have taken a new approach with young, first-offender hackers, in the hopes of rehabilitating them and recruiting them to help defend against future attacks. The UK offers an alternative called the “cybercrime intervention workshop,” essentially a boot camp for young hackers who have technical talent but poor judgment.
The three defendants — Josiah White, Paras Jha and Dalton Norman — were between the ages of 18 and 20 when they created Mirai, originally to take down rival Minecraft servers with distributed denial-of-service attacks.
DDoS attacks send massive amounts of traffic to websites that can’t handle the load, with the intention of shutting them down. Mirai took over hundreds of thousands of computers and connected devices like security cameras and DVRs, and directed them for cyberattacks and traffic scams.
In one conversation, Jha told White that he was “an untouchable hacker god” while talking about Mirai, according to court documents.
The botnet was capable of carrying out some of the largest DDoS attacks ever recorded, including one in 2016 that caused web outages across the internet. The three defendants weren’t behind the massive outage, as they were selling access to Mirai and making thousands of dollars, according to court documents.
Helping the FBI
The three hackers pleaded guilty in December, but had been helping the government with cybersecurity for 18 months, even before they were charged. Prosecutors estimated they’ve worked more than 1,000 hours with the FBI — about 25 weeks in a typical workplace.
That includes working with FBI agents in Anchorage, Alaska, to find botnets and free hacker-controlled computers, and building tools for the FBI like a cryptocurrency analysis program.
In March, the three hackers helped stop the Memcached DDoS attack, a tool that was capable of blasting servers with over a terabyte of traffic to shut them down.
“The impact on the stability and resiliency of the broader Internet could have been profound,” US attorneys said in a court document. “Due to the rapid work of the defendants, the size and frequency of Memcache DDoS attacks were quickly reduced such that within a matter of weeks, attacks utilizing Memcache were functionally useless.”
According to US officials, the three hackers also helped significantly reduce the number of DDoS attacks during Christmas last year — when activity usually spikes. Along with helping the FBI, the three defendants have also worked with cybersecurity companies to identify nation-state hackers and assisted on international investigations.
Jha now works for a cybersecurity company in California while also attending school. Dalton has been continuing his work with FBI agents while attending school at the University of New Orleans, and White is working at his family’s business.
Prosecutors heavily factored their “immaturity” and “technological sophistication” as part of the decision.
“All three have significant employment and educational prospects should they choose to take advantage of them rather than continuing to engage in criminal activity,” the court documents said.
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