Computer law expert says British hacker arrest problematic

LONDON (AP) — A computer law expert on Friday described the evidence so far presented to justify the U.S. arrest of a notorious British cybersecurity researcher as being problematic — an indictment so flimsy that it could create a climate of distrust between the U.S. government and the community of information-security experts.

News of Marcus Hutchins’ arrest in the United States for allegedly creating and selling malicious software able to collect bank account passwords has shocked the cybersecurity community. Many had rallied behind the British hacker, whose quick thinking helped control the spread of the WannaCry ransomware attack that crippled thousands of computers in May.

Attorney Tor Ekeland told The Associated Press that the facts in the indictment fail to show intent.

“This is a very, very problematic prosecution to my mind, and I think it’s bizarre that the United States government has chosen to prosecute somebody who’s arguably their hero in the WannaCry malware attack and potentially saved lives and thousands, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars over the sale of alleged malware,” Ekeland said. “This is just bizarre, it creates a disincentive for anybody in the information security industry to cooperate with the government.”

Hutchins was detained in Las Vegas as he was returning to his home in southwest Britain from an annual gathering of hackers and information security gurus. A grand jury indictment charged Hutchins with creating and distributing malware known as the Kronos banking Trojan.

Such malware infects web browsers, then captures usernames and passwords when an unsuspecting user visits a bank or other trusted location, enabling cybertheft.

The indictment, filed in a Wisconsin federal court last month, alleges that Hutchins and another defendant — whose name was redacted — conspired between July 2014 and July 2015 to advertise the availability of the Kronos malware on internet forums, sell the malware and profit from it. The indictment also accuses Hutchins of creating the malware.

The problem with software creation, however, is that often a program can include code written by multiple programmers. Prosecutors might need to prove that Hutchins wrote code with specific targets.

Ekeland said that what is notable to him from the indictment is that it doesn’t allege any financial loss to any victims — or in any way identify them. Besides that, laws covering aspects of computer crime are unclear, often giving prosecutors broad discretion.

“The only money mentioned in this indictment is … for the sale of the software,” he said. “Which again is problematic because in my opinion of this, if the legal theory behind this indictment is correct, well then half of the United States software industry is potentially a bunch of felons.”