The Startup That Transformed the Hack-for-Hire Industry


If you’re looking for a long read to while away your weekend, we’ve got you covered. First up, WIRED senior reporter Andy Greenberg reveals the wild story behind the three teenage hackers who created the Mirai botnet code that ultimately took down a huge swath of the internet in 2016. WIRED contributor Garrett Graff pulls from his new book on UFOs to lay out the proof that the 1947 “discovery” of aliens in Roswell, New Mexico, never really happened. And finally, we take a deep dive into the communities that are solving cold cases using face recognition and other AI.

That’s not all. Each week, we round up the security and privacy stories we didn’t report in depth ourselves. Click the headlines to read the full stories, and stay safe out there.

For years, mercenary hacker companies like NSO Group and Hacking Team have repeatedly been the subject of scandal for selling their digital intrusion and cyberespionage services to clients worldwide. Far less well-known is an Indian startup called Appin that, from its offices in New Delhi, reportedly enabled customers worldwide to hack whistleblowers, activists, corporate competitors, lawyers, and celebrities on a giant scale.

In a sprawling investigation, Reuters reporters spoke to dozens of former Appin staff and hundreds of its hacking victims. It also obtained thousands of its internal documents—including 17 pitch documents advertising its “cyber spying” and “cyber warfare” offerings—as well as case files from law enforcement investigations into Appin launched from the US to Switzerland. The resulting story reveals in new depth how a small Indian company “hacked the world,” as Reuters writes, brazenly selling its hacking abilities to the highest bidder through an online portal called My Commando. Its victims, as well as those of copycat hacking companies founded by its alumni, have included Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, Malaysian politician Mohamed Azmin Ali, targets of a Dominican digital tabloid, and a member of a Native American tribe who tried to claim profits from a Long Island, New York, casino development on his reservation.

The ransomware group known as Scattered Spider has distinguished itself this year as one of the most ruthless in the digital extortion industry, most recently inflicting roughly $100 million in damage to MGM Casinos. A damning new Reuters report—their cyber team has had a busy week— suggests that at least some members of that cybercriminal group are based in the West, within reach of US law enforcement. Yet they haven’t been arrested. Executives of cybersecurity companies who have tracked Scattered Spider say the FBI, where many cybersecurity-focused agents have been poached by the private sector, may lack the personnel needed to investigate. They also point to a reluctance on the part of victims to immediately cooperate in investigations, sometimes depriving law enforcement of valuable evidence.

Denmark’s critical infrastructure Computer Emergency Response Team, known as SektorCERT, warned in a report on Sunday that hackers had breached the networks of 22 Danish power utilities by exploiting a bug in their firewall appliances. The report, first revealed by Danish journalist Henrik Moltke, described the campaign as the biggest of its kind to ever target the Danish power grid. Some clues in the hackers’ infrastructure suggest that the group behind the intrusions was the notorious Sandworm, aka Unit 74455 of Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, which has been responsible for the only three confirmed blackouts triggered by hackers in history, all in Ukraine. But in this case, the hackers were discovered and evicted from the target networks before they could cause any disruption to the utilities’ customers.

Last month, WIRED covered the efforts of a whitehat hacker startup called Unciphered to unlock valuable cryptocurrency wallets whose owners have forgotten their passwords—including one stash of $250 million in bitcoin stuck on an encrypted USB drive. Now, the same company has revealed that it found a flaw in a random number generator widely used in cryptocurrency wallets created prior to 2016 that leaves many of those wallets prone to theft, potentially adding up to $1 billion in vulnerable money. Unciphered found the flaw while attempting to unlock $600,000 worth of crypto locked in a client’s wallet. They failed to crack it but in the process discovered a flaw in a piece of open-source code called BitcoinJS that left a wide swath of other wallets potentially open to be hacked. The coder who built that flaw into BitcoinJS? None other than Stefan Thomas, the owner of that same $250 million in bitcoin locked on a thumb drive.



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