You might think everything that needed to be said already has been said about Albert Gonzalez, the mastermind behind the largest public computer security breaches in U.S. history. But the lengthy and up close account of Gonzalez in the New York Times today shows that there are more layers to what is, perhaps, the most spectacular hacking case in recent memory.
Weighing in more than 8,000 words, the piece by James Verini is a classic piece of “access journalism.” Verini corresponded with Gonzalez and visited the 28 year-old at the Wyatt Detention Center in Rhode Island, talking to him about his childhood and his introduction to the world of computer hacking.
Gonzalez and two co-conspirators were first indicted for a string of hacks on TJX, Target, Barnes & Noble, JCPenny and others in August, 2009.
The portrait that emerges from Verini’s account is one of a man who is clearly brilliant. Gonzalez is described by co-conspirators like Stephen Watt, as a so-so programmer with a knack for identifying and exploiting security holes in networks. He was the architect of the FBI’s famous “Operation Firewall,” which took down the Shadowcrew hacking site.
But he’s also depicted as a master manipulator. He and his crew stole millions of credit cards from some of the nation’s leading retailers while working as a paid informant for the FBI, and Gonzalez wasn’t shy about playing both sides of the fence: using his inside knowledge of ongoing investigations to set up other criminals and maximize his own profits. He famously spent $75,000 on a birthday party for himself, while co-conspirators like Watt were paid little – if at all. Despite owning a condo, he chose to live with his parents so he could enjoy his mother’s home cooking, but also because it made it easier to use his parents home equity line to launder money, Verini reports.
“Whatever morality I should have been feeling was trumped by the thrill,” he is quoted by Verini as saying.
In the end, Gonzalez pled guilty for the hacks of Heartland Payment Systems, Hannaford Brothers Supermarkets, 7-Eleven and other unnamed retailers, and received two, concurrent 20 year jail sentences for the crimes.
Read the rest of the account on the Times Web site. It’s well worth the time invested!