One in four criminal hackers turn snitches under pressure from US authorities.
The FBI and US Secret Service – the two lead agencies in the fight against cybercrime in the US – have used the threat of prison to create an army of informers, according to an investigation by The Guardian. A climate of mistrust has been sown among criminal hackers as a result of this process.
Hacker turncoats running carder forums – under instructions from FBI handlers – have acted as sources of intelligence for subsequent prosecutions. In other cases, undercover agents have run underground forums as part of sting operations.
Eric Corley, publisher of hacker quarterly 2600, estimates 25 per cent of hackers (crackers) operating in the US might have turned stool pidgin. "Owing to the harsh penalties involved and the relative inexperience with the law that many hackers have, they are rather susceptible to intimidation," Corley told The Guardian.
John Young, who runs whistle-blowing website Cryptome, said mistrust among hackers is growing rife. "There are dozens and dozens of hackers who have been shopped by people they thought they trusted," he said.
Convicted hacker turned security consultant and author Kevin Mitnick, who ought to know a thing or two about such things, argued that if anything the one in four figure is on the low side. "I want hear about *any* hacker cases with multiple defendants where no one snitched. Anyone? I think 25% is a LOW," he said.
The best-known example of a hacker turned informant is Adrian Lamo, who put the authorities on the trail of presumed WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning. Other examples place the tactic of running informants in a far less favourable light. For example, Albert Gonzalez masterminded the hacking of credit card databases maintained by TJ Maxx and Heartland Payment between 2005 and 2007 while simultaneously acting as a Secret Service informant.
The timing of The Guardian investigation could be seen as an attempt to sow distrust among the ranks of Anonymous and other mischief-making hacking groups, such as LulzSec, which has been very busy of late hacking into systems maintained by Sony and (even more provocatively) FBI-affiliated organisations. A number of alleged Anonymous members have already been arrested in the US and UK, providing a potential source of turncoats. Or perhaps that's just what the feds would like cracktivists to believe... ®