The year 1981 brought us the world’s first computer virus; 1988, the world’s first worm; 2000, the first documented Denial-of-Service (DoS) attack; and 2005-2007, the biggest, most complex cybercrime in history.
Albert Gonzalez, a 28-year old mastermind, led a band of hackers who stole information from 45.7 million accounts including TJX companies, Dave & Buster’s restaurants, Target, JCPenney, and Boston Market.
A viral encounter
At 12, Gonzalez bought his first computer. After he inadvertently downloaded a virus, the outraged boy contacted the technician who sold it to him and pummeled him with questions.
He was a quick learner. By 14, the FBI confronted him at his south Miami high school for hacking into NASA.
The turning point
By 2003 his sophistication with people and computers had made him a celebrity in a criminal cybergang called Shadowcrew. That’s when a plainclothes NYPD detective spotted a young man (who turned out to be Gonzalez) sporting a nose ring and a woman’s red wig.
He watched as Gonzalez made his way to an ATM and used several cards to withdraw hundreds of dollars.
It was done. Arrested and scared, Gonzalez agreed to help the Secret Service. This arrangement lead to the capture of 28 Shadowcrew members across eight states and six countries.
Mission accomplished, the government (unwisely) hired him to improve their cybersecurity. Eventually dissatisfied with his meager $75k salary and comfortably acquainted with the flaws in governmental security, Gonzalez rejoined his fellow hackers.
Under the name Green Hat Enterprises, he began “war driving:” positioning high-power radio antennas near companies with vulnerable wi-fi networks to obtain point-of-sale credit/debit card information. As he grew more efficient, he remotely accessed account information by manipulating Structured Query Language (SQL).
From bitter experience, Gonzalez had learned not use cards with stolen numbers. Instead, he sold card information to other criminals. This was ultimately his downfall.
However, when authorities arrested a member of Gonzalez’ extensive cybercrime network for selling stolen card information, they also found information on his computer that led to Gonzalez’ arrest.
At his trial in Boston, Massachusetts, he claimed to suffer from Asperger’s and computer addiction. The court rejected that: Gonzalez’ tightly organized cybercrime was a feat of leadership, social engineering, and advanced deception. From the court’s point of view, Asperger’s wasn’t the most believable excuse, and Gonzalez was summarily sentenced to two concurrent terms of 20 years in prison. It was the harshest punishment for any American hacker to date.
At his sentencing, the judge said, “What I found most devastating was the fact that you two-timed the government agency that you were cooperating with, and you were essentially like a double agent.”
Gonzalez is still in prison today.
Andrew Parker is an award-winning writer whose books are available on Amazon. His novels are Chess Genius, Robots Running Wild, and Reality Gone Wrong. His short stories are The Chess Match, The Escape, Rat Story, On Being Bullied, Creep, Raggedy Ann, and Three Bears Soup. His next publication will be the first part of the Bitch Trailer Park series.