Marcus Hutchins, a 24-year-old blogger and malware researcher arrested in 2017 for allegedly authoring and selling malware designed to steal online banking credentials, has pleaded guilty to criminal charges of conspiracy and to making, selling or advertising illegal wiretapping devices.
Hutchins, who authors the popular blog MalwareTech, was virtually unknown to most in the security community until May 2017 when the U.K. media revealed him as the “accidental hero” who inadvertently halted the global spread of WannaCry, a ransomware contagion that had taken the world by storm just days before.
In August 2017, Hutchins was arrested by FBI agents in Las Vegas on suspicion of authoring and/or selling “Kronos,” a strain of malware designed to steal online banking credentials. A British citizen, Hutchins has been barred from leaving the United States since his arrest.
Many of Hutchins’ supporters and readers had trouble believing the charges against him, and in response KrebsOnSecurity published a lengthy investigation into activities tied to his various online personas over the years.
As I wrote in summary of that story, the clues suggested “Hutchins began developing and selling malware in his mid-teens — only to later develop a change of heart and earnestly endeavor to leave that part of his life squarely in the rearview mirror.” Nevertheless, there were a number of indications that Hutchins’ alleged malware activity continued into his adulthood.
In a statement posted to his Twitter feed and to malwaretech.com, Hutchins said today he had pleaded guilty to two charges related to writing malware in the years prior to his career in security.
“I regret these actions and accept full responsibility for my mistakes,” Hutchins wrote. “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 pleaded guilty to two of the 10 counts for which he was originally accused, including conspiracy charges and violating U.S.C. Title 18, Section 2512, which involves the manufacture, distribution, possession and advertising of devices for intercepting online communications.
Creating malware is a form of protected speech in the United States, but selling it and disseminating it is another matter. University of Southern California law professor Orin Kerr‘s 2017 dissection of the government’s charges is worth a read for a deep dive on this sticky legal issue.
According to a copy of Hutchins’ plea agreement, both charges each carry a maximum of up to five years in prison, up to a $250,000 fine, and up to one year of supervised release. However, those charges are likely to be substantially tempered by federal sentencing guidelines, and may take into account time already served in detention. It remains unclear when he will be sentenced.
The plea agreement is here (PDF). “Attachment A” beginning on page 15 outlines the government’s case against Hutchins and an alleged co-conspirator. The government says between July 2012 and Sept. 2015, Hutchins helped create and sell Kronos and a related piece of malware called UPAS Kit.
Despite what many readers here have alleged, I hold no ill will against Hutchins. He and I spoke briefly in a friendly exchange after a chance encounter at last year’s DEF CON security conference in Las Vegas, and I said at the time I was rooting for him to beat the charges. I sincerely hope he is able to keep his nose clean and put this incident behind him soon.