Arrest of WannaCry researcher sends chill through security community

The Wednesday arrest of cybersecurity researcher Marcus Hutchins is sending chills through the cyber community. 

"It's unclear if the Department of Justice knows what it just did with its handling of this indictment," said Tor Ekeland, a lawyer who specializes in computer crimes. 

Researchers across the country have expressed fear and confusion after the Nevada arrest of the United Kingdom-based Hutchins. The details of why he was arrested are still murky.

Hutchins rose to international celebrity by discovering a "kill switch" in the WannaCry malware, cutting off the spread of the ransomware attack before it reached its full potential.


Hutchins is now facing charges over allegedly helping write and aide in the distribution of the Kronos banking malware in 2014. Kronos steals login information when infected systems conduct online banking. 

He was arrested during a trip to Las Vegas that corresponded with a series of cybersecurity conferences he did not attend, but used as an opportunity to see far flung friends within the security industry.

Despite Hutchins's prominence in the field, the Justice Department did not announce his arrest until a full day later. As friends, fans and media pieced together that he had been arrested, speculation ran wild as to the reasoning behind it.

The issue, say lawyers and researchers following the case, is not a matter of Hutchins's guilt or innocence. Rather, it's the rollout of an indictment they say is short on facts, was aggressive in its application of computer law and ultimately left researchers confused over whether standard research practices are now being treated as prosecutable offenses.

"We did a lot of work on WannaCry, too," said Jake Williams, founder of Rendition Infosec. "I had folks afraid that their own involvement in investigating WannaCry would get them arrested."

It took until late afternoon Thursday for the DOJ to release a press release and the indictment of Hutchins.

The DOJ releases sparked more questions from researchers. The documents were extremely light on evidence or even a complete description of what Hutchins is alleged of doing, but appear to be based on an extremely aggressive interpretation of computer laws.

That may be a DOJ strategy to not tip its hand before an interrogation, said Ekeland. But without evidence or information, he said many of the charges seem a stretch.

The indictment does not say Hutchins designed Kronos to be sold, knew about the sale or was at all aware his work was being used maliciously. Security researchers are worried that the malicious code might have been taken from Hutchins's research or provided in good faith that he was helping other researchers. Both are common in the security community in its efforts to identify, prevent and test for potential new threats. 

"At the time they allege he was committing the crime, he gave a presentation on [malware known as] bootkits," said Williams. "Until all the cards are on the table, our team will be more careful about any research we publish."

Those concerns echoed throughout the security community, which worries that any research or security tools that are produced can be reengineered into use in malware.

"As a writer of code sometimes used in viruses, this worries me. People often ask me to add features [to my code], which I do willingly. They may be intending to use these features for crime, but it's hard for me to know that," wrote Errata Security's Rob Graham over two Thursday tweets.  

Ekeland and other lawyers, including Orin Kerr in his Washington Post Blog, considered the indictment to push a number of legal boundaries.

Charges Hutchins violated computer trespass laws hinge on demonstrating that he not only wrote the malware, but sold it intending to damage a victim's computers

"It’s not obvious that Hutchins and [his alleged conspirator] cared what the buyer did with the malware afterward, so long as they paid," wrote Kerr.

With a researcher who has garnered international press, said Ekeland, the DOJ needed to be as clear as possible in its indictment about what happened, something he says the DOJ fell short on.

"If they have other facts, they should have included them."

Until those facts surface, Williams believes the DOJ's actions will prevent U.S. researchers from publicly identifying threats and prevent international researchers from sharing information with American ones. 

"Bringing researchers into the U.S. will be more difficult," he said. "The DOJ really blew it."

This story was updated at 4:07 p.m.