An employee of search engine startup Mahalo has been sentenced to four years in prison for infecting as many as 250,000 computers with malicious botnet computer code.
John Schiefer was sentenced in federal court after previously pleading guilty to hacking, fraud and wiretapping charges. He was arrested in 2007 as part of a large U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation enforcement action against botnet makers, called Operation Bot Roast II.
The case marks the first time that someone has been charged with operating a botnet under federal wiretapping laws.
Schiefer could have been sentenced to as much as five years in prison on the charges.
When they hired him, Mahalo executives didn’t know about his criminal activities. In a blog posting, Mahalo founder Jason Calacanis said company CTO Mark Jeffrey had “screwed up by not doing a simple Google search on John’s name,” but he stood by his employee, saying there is a fine line between hackers “who put one foot over the line” and commit minor indiscretions, and others like Schiefer, who “race past it.”
“I consider myself a fairly decent judge of character, and after spending months with John, I’m convinced he was an angry stupid kid when he launched his botnet attack (which did .000000001 per cent of the damage it could have),” Calacanis wrote. “Now he’s an adult who just wants to make a decent living, spend time with his significant other and breathe the clean air off the Pacific Ocean by our offices in Santa Monica.”
“When he comes out, I hope to be able to offer him a job and that we can work together again,” Calacanis said.
Schiefer built his botnet army while a consultant at 3G Communications, a small Los Angeles telecommunications company. The network, built with the help of two accomplices, was used to snoop in on Internet traffic between victims’ computers and financial institutions such as PayPal, prosecutors said.
Schiefer would then make purchases or simply drain his victims’ bank accounts.
He used several partners in the scheme — some of them minors whom he “bullied … into participating in the crimes,” prosecutors said in the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.