Any hopes that Marcus Hutchins, the British security researcher credited with stopping WannaCry, might have harbored about a quick resolution of a US malware case against him were dashed this week with the FBI slapping four new charges against him.
Federal authorities arrested Hutchins, 24, in Las Vegas last August and charged him with creating and distributing, Kronos – malware for stealing online banking credentials – between July 2014 and July 2015.
In a six-count indictment, federal prosecutors accused Hutchins of, among other things, conspiring to commit computer fraud, illegally accessing computers, and distributing and advertising an illegal communication-interception device.
Hutchins shot to fame last year when he almost serendipitously found a way to stop the WannaCry ransomware outbreak. Widely hailed as a hacker hero, Hutchins was in Las Vegas to attend the 2017 DefCon hacker conference when he was arrested.
He later pleaded not guilty to the charges in a federal court in Milwaukee, where some of his criminal activity is alleged to have occurred. Hutchins is currently out on bail but has not been permitted to return to his home in England.
In a superseding indictment filed this week, prosecutors are now accusing Hutchins of also authoring and distributing the Upas Kit malware that uses a form grabber and Web injects for stealing credentials and other data from infected systems.
Three of the four new charges in the superseding indictment are related to Hutchins’ alleged role in advertising and distributing the malware in collaboration with “Vinny,” an alleged co-conspirator. Prosecutors allege that Hutchins developed Upas Kit and provided it to Vinny, who sold it for $1,500 to an individual in Milwaukee. Vinny is alleged to have helped Hutchins distribute Kronos as well.
The indictment describes the alleged criminal activity involving Upas Kit as starting sometime on or before July 2012, when Hutchins would likely still have been a minor.
The fourth new charge in the superseding indictment this week accuses Hutchins of knowingly lying to federal prosecutors about his role in developing Kronos.
Hutchins, who before the WannaCry incident referred to himself simply as “Malwaretech” and ran a blog under that name, now faces a total of ten counts related to his alleged malware activity. He could spend years in US jail if convicted on all charges.
In a tweet, Hutchins expressed his frustration at the development. “Spend months and $100k+ fighting this case, then they go and reset the clock by adding even more bullshit charges like ‘lying to the FBI’,” he said while making an appeal for more donations for funding his defense.
Some others, who see Hutchins as being the victim of overzealous prosecutors, too, voiced their disappointment. They maintain that Hutchins’ alleged criminal activity, while not condonable, is typical of many security researchers who dabble in dubious activity when they’re young, but eventually straighten out.
“A lot of security people have flecks of dirt accumulated over the years,” says Nicholas Weaver, senior researcher networking and security at the University of California, Berkley’s International Computer Science Institute.
But it is important to “keep open exchanges even with people whose hats aren’t as quite lily-white as we’d like,” he says.
Hutchins’ arrest when visiting the US for a security conference could spook other international researchers, he notes. “Yes, Mr Hutchins’ hat appears a little gray, based on filings from both sides in the court case,” and open source investigations, Weaver says. “But I don’t think it is gray enough to justify damaging the important free-flow of people and information we get at major security conferences.”
Some legal experts have also questioned the strength of the government’s case against Hutchins, and of its interpretation of certain statutes in prosecuting him.
Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year … View Full Bio