[THere is a chance this article was removed because of the legal threats made by John Vranesevich against the Ottawa Citizen. It is preserved here for posterity.]


The Ottawa Citizen Online Business Page

Monday 19 July 1999

Spy vs. spy in the hacker underworld

Network security expert is under investigation for attacks on U.S. government Web sites

Bob Paquin
The Ottawa Citizen

In the murky world of hackers and crackers, appearances can be deceptive. "White hat" good guys, working for software or security firms, have occasionally been caught moonlighting as "black hat" rogues.

Such appears to be the case with John Vranesevich, a network security expert and founder of top-rated hacker Web site AntiOnline. Mr. Vranesevich is currently under investigation by the FBI with regard to recent attacks on U.S. government Web sites. It is alleged that he may have employed hackers to target high profile sites in order to scoop the rest of the media with exclusive reporting.

Mr. Vranesevich has denied the allegations.

Brian Martin, also under FBI investigation for hacking, recently released a report on his Web site (www.attrition.org/negation/special) which details a series of links between Mr. Vranesevich and an alleged member of the hacker group Masters of Downloading, which claimed responsibility for the U.S. Senate Web site hack earlier this month.

Mr. Martin, who researches hacker culture through his Web site, claims to have been tracking questionable AntiOnline reporting over the past year.

Mr. Vranesevich, 20, has over the past couple of years become one of the most widely quoted and authoritative sources on hacking and security-related information.╩Begun in late 1994 as a 5-megabyte high school hobby Web site, AntiOnline has since grown into a multi-domain business venture.

ABC News has described it as a "Rick's Cafe in the Casablanca world of hacking."╩Besides reporting on hacking news, the site offers a downloadable library of hacking software tools, archives of several hacker newsletters and journals, and copies of some of the hacked pages featured in reported stories.

While growing increasingly popular with the mainstream media, however, Mr. Vranesevich has slowly built up a number of enemies among the hacker underground.

Spurred, perhaps, by an extensive FBI and U.S. Department of Justice hacker crackdown, which resulted in raids on 20 suspected hackers across six states, Mr. Vranesevich declared a dramatic change of stance, distancing himself from the subjects he covers.

In a "Change in Mission" notice posted on his Web site, Mr. Vranesevich said: "Unfortunately, I've found myself looking in the mirror with disgust these past few months. Looking back, I've seen myself talking with people who have broken into hundreds of governmental servers, stolen sensitive data from military sites, broken into atomic research centres, and yes, people who have even attempted to sell data to individuals that presented themselves as being foreign terrorists ╔ Many times, I knew about these instances before hand, and could have stopped them."

He also claimed to have been secretly working with the U.S. Airforce to develop a "profile of a hacker" for use in fighting "CyberCrime".

Mr. Vranesevich's message concluded with a note to the thousands of hackers who read his site: "You yell and scream about freedom of speech, yet you destroy sites which have information that disagree with your opinions.╩You yell and scream about privacy, yet you install trojans into others' systems, and read their personal email and files. You truly are hypocrites.╩All of these grand manifestos that you develop are little more than excuses that you make up to justify your actions to yourself."

Mr. Martin, on the other hand, alleges that many of the reports from AntiOnline, and subsequent follow-on reporting in other media outlets, have been exaggerated and sensationalized.

"Not only had AntiOnline driven the media hype behind the stories, they put various government and Department of Defense organizations on full alert preparing for the fallout these attacks would cause," he states on his own Web site.

In detailing the relationship between Mr. Vranesevich and the alleged hacker in questions, Mr. Martin notes that "the typical journalist/contact relationship did not exist, and in fact, AntiOnline may have been responsible for creating some of the news to report on ╔ he pays people to break into sites in order to report on it as an exclusive."