Hacker reveals how 10 years in prison turned him from a pro to an outsider
Jesse McGraw was the first hacker convicted of hacking US process control systems. After 10 years in prison, he met a world that had made a quantum leap in development.
Especially for forklog.media, he talked about what he thinks about new technologies and how he adapts to a new reality.
The world has changed beyond recognition. A lot of it functions completely differently than in 2009, when I was arrested. I was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison for installing a botnet and remote access programs on computers in an orthopedic clinic, from which several critical systems, including heating, ventilation and air conditioning, were managed.
So I became the first personin recent US history, convicted of hacking process control systems. A lot of time has passed since then, but it still seems to me that all this happened only yesterday.
You need to understand how to be imprisoned in the United States. To date, about 2.3 million people are held in prison in America, whom the Federal Prison Administration rarely spoils with Internet access.
Current information is prohibited
In prison, access to relevant information is strictly limited to newspapers, television programs and relatively recent publications in specialized magazines, which are approved in advance by the administration.
Most prisoners have limited access to a computer through which they can send emails to pre-approved contacts. Pleasure is paid and costs half a cent per minute. I was even deprived of this method of communication with the outside world. The life of a hacker who ended up in federal prison, to put it mildly, is not sugar.
In the summer of 2011, I was preparing to appeal my case. Since I did not have available ways to contact my lawyer, I arranged with another prisoner to let me use the email from his account. On this I subsequently fell.
A sharp jump in activity on someone else’s account attracted the attention of the prison security service. My name came up quickly enough — the guards knew that it was I who used the email from that prisoner’s account. In addition, he decided to play a fool and told the jailers that I had hacked his account and had been using e-mail all his time without his knowledge.
For this violation, I was sentenced to 13 months in a maximum security prison without the possibility of somehow expressing my defense, and information about my violation was transmitted to the FBI.
The place where I ended up serving my sentence for my misconduct is called by many “Black Sites” (similar to those used by the CIA – editor’s note). There is no connection, no hours of visits, even lawyers are denied access there, so everything that happens outside these walls remains there forever. The Sigovill Federal Correctional Facility met these high standards perfectly. This maximum security prison used to be a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and many things have not changed since then.
The zealously guarded traditions included the ability to take a shower no more than three times a week, as well as a 23-hour stay in a 2.5 m by 3 m cell, where there was not even normal ventilation, not to mention such luxuries as air conditioning.
That summer, the temperature in my cell rose to 51.6 degrees Celsius. Since the investigators did not find evidence that it was I who hacked into the computer, they should have transferred me back to the rest of the prisoners. I will not bore the details, I can only say that this did not happen.
Can you imagine what it is like to be cut off from information about what is happening in the world for more than a year?
It is amazing how much the world has advanced in the years I spent in prison. For the long 10 years I was divorced from technological progress and the society that changed and developed with it. And my return from prison was more like a time travel.
As a hacker, I founded a group known as the Electronik Tribulation Army. The leader of the hacker group was required to keep abreast of the latest social and technological trends, including gadgets and electronic system vulnerabilities. I decoded someone else’s malware, wrote my own, fought off attacks from other hackers and cracked everything that came to my hand.
Of course, I read about technological innovations in the prison press, but when it was time to face them, I realized that from a pro I turned into an outsider. The teacher again had to become a student.
Not so long ago, I received a new Dell Inspiron laptop as a present. The unpacking process was like meeting an old friend whom we had not seen for many years. However, a stranger was hiding under the mask of an old friend: when I turned it on, I was greeted by Windows 10 – my new sworn enemy.
It seemed that Windows 7 beta came out only yesterday, and then I found that it was replaced by another OS long ago. And not one. “Ten” seemed strange and illogical to me. The new file system was supposed to ignite a spark of curiosity, to encourage me to figure out how it works. But I didn’t feel anything like that. All I wanted was to bring back my good old laptop with Windows XP and multiboot Ubuntu Linux and BackTrack 3.
For happiness, it seemed that a trifle was needed – download Ubuntu, create a bootable USB flash drive and install the system on a laptop. If I only knew that modern computers on Windows 10 use UEFI (a single extensible firmware interface) with all its pitfalls instead of the good old BIOS, I would not spend another two days of my life on grueling dances with a tambourine in fruitless attempts to install on a laptop favorite OSes.
Windows was running me now. The realization that the computer refused to obey infuriated me. I could spend hours wool Google trying to understand why the system once again became crooked, but it was no use.
Over the years of my imprisonment, not only the OS has changed. I had to ask my twelve year old daughter what a hashtag is. To say that it was simply humiliating is to say nothing. “Shouldn’t hackers know such things themselves?” She replied, knocking out my pretty battered self-esteem.
The reality that I found myself in continues to amaze me. Previously, the idea of openly offering their services as a hacker was considered a taboo. It was simply dangerous. Today, hackers openly advertise themselves, not to mention the fact that their very occupation began to be perceived differently. I don’t know whether this is good or bad, but being a hacker in the current reality has become the norm.
Baghunting (vulnerability detection in software) has turned for many into a means of legal earnings, and companies themselves began to ask talented hackers to check the strength of their system, promising a lot of money for it.
Hackers suddenly fell into the spotlight of Hollywood producers, book authors, and computer game creators. Thanks to characters from such successful TV shows as Mr. Robot, society suddenly began to perceive hackers as heroes, instead of labeling them as stereotypical villains and Internet trolls. The governments of the largest world powers began to gather under their banner armies of Internet pirates, cyber soldiers and digital saboteurs.
The destructive potential of cyber weapons equaled the power of bombs and missiles and formed an invisible battlefield for a completely new type of war. The world has changed. Faced with representatives of a new generation of hackers on the Internet, I regret to notice that most of them have long forgotten or never wondered what the true meaning of the hacker movement is. They are driven by greed, anger and revenge. Curiosity and exploratory spirit are gone.
A world with which I do not feel connected
While I was nostalgic in prison, progress headlong rushed forward. Here are just a few examples of how different I see this brave new world.
Bitcoin, the first cryptocurrency in the history of mankind. To be honest, I still don’t really understand how to use it.
The first smartphones in their usual form appeared in 2007, but they began to actively push push-button phones only in 2009. I got comfortable with my Samsung Galaxy A10e, but still I can’t figure out how to get root rights in it. When I first saw the advertisement of a smartphone on TV, I thought: “What idiocy! Does anyone really want to touch these screens with their dirty fingers ?! ” Obviously that’s all. And including me.
Obama, as president, signed into law an emergency disconnection of corporate networks from the Internet. This is how the “Internet kill switch” came about.
During the “Arab Spring”, the popularity of instant messengers with end-to-end encryption has grown.
The issue of using personal data on the Internet caused a wide public response and people began to pay attention to Tor and other anonymizers.
The Myspace social network has sunk into the abyss, hammering the last nail into the coffin of creative creation of profiles in social networks. The era of utilitarianism has come.
The epidemic of banking trojans. ZeuS, SpyEye, BlackHole, and BackSwap — just a few. The growth in the number of devices connected to the Internet has led to the fact that IPv4 addresses have rapidly ended in the world.
Iraqi militants managed to crack the Predator strike UAV with SkyGrabber and boxed software. The WikiLeaks organization began to grow rapidly after Chelsea Manning released a large volume of classified government documents. Anonymous hacker group was at the forefront of a new revolution against state arbitrariness.
Against the backdrop of the revolution, social unrest, growing distrust of the American government and the justice system, as well as increasing economic inequality, the hacker group LulzSec arose . This group of experienced hackers, breaking away from Anonymous, not only made painful and incredibly complex hacker attacks on corporate networks, which were considered the most secure, but also managed to drive all US law enforcement agencies by the nose.
National Security Agency (NSA) agent Edward Snowden leaked to journalists about 10,000 top-secret documents exposing the NSA’s total surveillance of people around the world, as well as information about the PRISM project. This created a real storm in the US Congress. Against this background, several laws were passed, several people were laid off, but the government did not stop spying on people. And never stop.
Stuxnet happened – the most complex and dangerous computer virus in history, which first nearly destroyed the Iranian nuclear program, and then spread throughout the world.
Large advertisers began to actively collect information about user behavior in order to effectively target ads. I used to steal personal data too, but in those years it was a crime. Perhaps if I first sent those people a couple of promotional messages, it would be less like a crime?
Facebook and Google are so penetrated into the daily lives of users that even in third-party services it became possible to register using personal profiles on social networks.
Add to this the growing popularity of smart homes and smart cars and imagine: all these “highly intelligent” devices that communicate wirelessly and are controlled by a smartphone — what if not a celebration for a hacker? Smart watches and smart rings? Are you kidding me?
Net neutrality policy appeared in the USA as a reaction to the desire of providers to control the distribution of traffic.
BackTrack is extinct as a species. Finding a distribution that is not infected with malware is hardly possible. He was replaced by Kali Linux, with whom they look like twin brothers.
Tupac Shakur appeared at the Coachella festival in the form of a hologram.
Glasses Google Glass came to the forefront of augmented reality, but the prohibitively high price tag and the issue of the safety of personal data prevented the device from taking over the market.
Virtual reality has not only become available to a wide range of users, but also integrated into the ecosystem of smartphones and game consoles.
Amazon Alexa’s voice assistant may have witnessed the killing. The judge demanded that Amazon transfer to the investigation all the data relevant to the case. Yes, voice assistants are constantly listening and constantly recording.
Drones gained immense popularity. They occupied all niches from simple toys to serious devices used in many areas, including the police and the military.
Ransomware has risen from oblivion. Cybercriminals infect computers of ordinary users with ransomware viruses with ransom requirements.
Artificial intelligence has made a huge leap forward. I saw a video on YouTube in which Will Smith tried to hit a robot named Sofia.
Intelligence agents began attending the annual Black Hat and DefCon hacking conferences in Las Vegas and openly recruiting people.
Somewhere in the midst of all this chaos, HTML5 arose.
Holograms. Smart homes. Cars with autopilot. Drones. Cryptocurrencies. Metadata Cyber weapon Switch for the Internet? Stepping out of my time machine, I found myself in a world to which I no longer belong.
A Misty Future
I ended up in a future I don’t understand. I no longer see the point in how the people around me interact with each other. Before me is a society so obsessed with likes, selfies, smartphones and other high-tech toys that I often think about why I can not find a place in this new interconnected world.
And the answer every time is the same: simply because I was not part of it and did not develop with it.
All these years, I seemed to be out of time, watching what was happening on the other side of reality. Waited. He counted the moments that took shape in eternity, at the end of which I finally could again live a normal life. And all this, only to end up in a strange world for me.
Author of the original article: Jesse McGraw aka Ghost Exodus