A Cincinnati man who plead guilty Thursday to cracking and cloning giant consumer databases was only caught because he helped out a friend in the hacker community.
Daniel Baas, 25, plead guilty Thursday to a single federal felony count of "exceeding authorized access" to a protected computer for using a cracked password to penetrate the systems of Arkansas-based Acxiom Corporation -- a company known among privacy advocates for its massive collection and sale of consumer data. The company also analyzes in-house consumer databases for a variety of companies.
From October, 2000 until last June, Baas worked as the system administrator at the Market Intelligence Group, a Cincinnati data mining company that was performing work for Acxiom. As part of his job, he had legitimate access to an Acxiom FTP server. At some point, while poking around on that server, he found an unprotected file containing encrypted passwords.
Some of those passwords proved vulnerable to a run-of-the-mill password cracking program, and one of them, "packers," gave Baas access to all of the accounts used by Acxiom customers -- credit card companies, banks, phone companies, and other enterprises -- to access or manage consumer data stored by Acxiom . He began copying the databases in bulk, and burning them onto CDs.
In all, Baas downloaded "millions" of consumer records, says prosecutor Robert Behlen. "He didn't execute any fraud with them," says Behlen. "He apparently liked to collect information." Baas' attorney didn't return a phone call.
Acxiom never detected Baas' activity. Instead, the seeds of Baas' undoing were sown in an IRC chat room last April, when, under his handle "Epitaph", he got in a conversion with fellow Cincinnati-area hacker Jesse Tuttle, known online as "Hackah Jak."
According to an affidavit filed by a detective with the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department, which investigated the case, Tuttle asked Baas if he "still had access" to a Cincinnati Bell database, and gave him the name of a local FBI agent. "Within two minutes of the request, 'Epitaph' provided the agent's home address and telephone number to Tuttle," reads the affidavit.
"He's a pretty nice guy," recalls Tuttle, in a telephone interview. Tuttle adds that has no clear recollection of the chat. "I really just knew him a little bit online, and from Cincinnati 2600 meetings."
That two-minute favor come back to haunt Baas when, less than a month later, Sheriff's Department computer crime detectives raided Tuttle's home while investigating intrusions into county websites, for which Tuttle is now facing charges. They seized Tuttle's computer, and, in forensic analysis, found a log of the IRC chat. In June they executed a search warrant on Baas' home, expecting to find evidence that he'd cracked a single telephone company database. Instead, they found he'd hit the mother of all consumer databases.
Information cataloged by Acxiom includes consumer's Social Security numbers, dates of birth, gender, income, occupation, number of children, years at residence, adults in household, and vehicle information. But company spokesperson Dale Ingram says the vast majority of the records Baas downloaded consisted of less-sensitive subsets of information, like a consumer's name and address, and "did not meet a threshold that would require consumer notification." The company also claims that some of the files were encrypted, implying that Baas couldn't have read them.
While dismissing the sensitivity of the information, for sentencing purposes Acxiom assessed the value of the records at over $1.9 million, according to prosecutor Behlen. As part of his plea, Baas has also accepted responsibility for $2.4 million in Acxiom employee time, $200,000 in travel expenses, and $1.3 million for security audits and better encryption software. When he's sentenced next year, Baas faces a minimum of 46 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. He is currently in custody awaiting trial on unrelated state hacking charges.