The Confessions of Marcus Hutchins, the Hacker Who Saved the Internet
At 22, he single-handedly put a stop to the worst cyberattack the world had ever seen. Then he was arrested by the FBI.
This is his untold story.
AT AROUND 7 am on a quiet Wednesday in August 2017, Marcus Hutchins walked out the front door of the Airbnb mansion in Las Vegas where he had been partying for the past week and a half. A gangly, 6'4", 23-year-old hacker with an explosion of blond-brown curls, Hutchins had emerged to retrieve his order of a Big Mac and fries from an Uber Eats deliveryman. But as he stood barefoot on the mansion's driveway wearing only a T-shirt and jeans, Hutchins noticed a black SUV parked on the street—one that looked very much like an FBI stakeout.
He stared at the vehicle blankly, his mind still hazed from sleep deprivation and stoned from the legalized Nevada weed he'd been smoking all night. For a fleeting moment, he wondered: Is this finally it?
But as soon as the thought surfaced, he dismissed it. The FBI would never be so obvious, he told himself. His feet had begun to scald on the griddle of the driveway. So he grabbed the McDonald's bag and headed back inside, through the mansion's courtyard, and into the pool house he'd been using as a bedroom. With the specter of the SUV fully exorcised from his mind, he rolled another spliff with the last of his weed, smoked it as he ate his burger, and then packed his bags for the airport, where he was scheduled for a first-class flight home to the UK.
Hutchins was coming off of an epic, exhausting week at Defcon, one of the world's largest hacker conferences, where he had been celebrated as a hero. Less than three months earlier, Hutchins had saved the internet from what was, at the time, the worst cyberattack in history: a piece of malware called WannaCry. Just as that self-propagating software had begun exploding across the planet, destroying data on hundreds of thousands of computers, it was Hutchins who had found and triggered the secret kill switch contained in its code, neutering WannaCry's global threat immediately.
This legendary feat of whitehat hacking had essentially earned Hutchins free drinks for life among the Defcon crowd. He and his entourage had been invited to every VIP hacker party on the strip, taken out to dinner by journalists, and accosted by fans seeking selfies. The story, after all, was irresistible: Hutchins was the shy geek who had single-handedly slain a monster threatening the entire digital world, all while sitting in front of a keyboard in a bedroom in his parents' house in remote western England.
Still reeling from the whirlwind of adulation, Hutchins was in no state to dwell on concerns about the FBI, even after he emerged from the mansion a few hours later and once again saw the same black SUV parked across the street. He hopped into an Uber to the airport, his mind still floating through a cannabis-induced cloud. Court documents would later reveal that the SUV followed him along the way—that law enforcement had, in fact, been tracking his location periodically throughout his time in Vegas.
When Hutchins arrived at the airport and made his way through the security checkpoint, he was surprised when TSA agents told him not to bother taking any of his three laptops out of his backpack before putting it through the scanner. Instead, as they waved him through, he remembers thinking that they seemed to be making a special effort not to delay him.
He wandered leisurely to an airport lounge, grabbed a Coke, and settled into an armchair. He was still hours early for his flight back to the UK, so he killed time posting from his phone to Twitter, writing how excited he was to get back to his job analyzing malware when he got home. “Haven't touched a debugger in over a month now,” he tweeted. He humblebragged about some very expensive shoes his boss had bought him in Vegas and retweeted a compliment from a fan of his reverse-engineering work.
Hutchins was composing another tweet when he noticed that three men had walked up to him, a burly redhead with a goatee flanked by two others in Customs and Border Protection uniforms. “Are you Marcus Hutchins?” asked the red-haired man. When Hutchins confirmed that he was, the man asked in a neutral tone for Hutchins to come with them, and led him through a door into a private stairwell.
Then they put him in handcuffs.
In a state of shock, feeling as if he were watching himself from a distance, Hutchins asked what was going on. “We'll get to that,” the man said.
Hutchins remembers mentally racing through every possible illegal thing he'd done that might have interested Customs. Surely, he thought, it couldn't be the thing, that years-old, unmentionable crime. Was it that he might have left marijuana in his bag? Were these bored agents overreacting to petty drug possession?
The agents walked him through a security area full of monitors and then sat him down in an interrogation room, where they left him alone. When the red-headed man returned, he was accompanied by a small blonde woman. The two agents flashed their badges: They were with the FBI.
For the next few minutes, the agents struck a friendly tone, asking Hutchins about his education and Kryptos Logic, the security firm where he worked. For those minutes, Hutchins allowed himself to believe that perhaps the agents wanted only to learn more about his work on WannaCry, that this was just a particularly aggressive way to get his cooperation into their investigation of that world-shaking cyberattack. Then, 11 minutes into the interview, his interrogators asked him about a program called Kronos.
“Kronos,” Hutchins said. “I know that name.” And it began to dawn on him, with a sort of numbness, that he was not going home after all.
FOURTEEN YEARS EARLIER, long before Marcus Hutchins was a hero or villain to anyone, his parents, Janet and Desmond, settled into a stone house on a cattle farm in remote Devon, just a few minutes from the west coast of England. Janet was a nurse, born in Scotland. Desmond was a social worker from Jamaica who had been a firefighter when he first met Janet in a nightclub in 1986. They had moved from Bracknell, a commuter town 30 miles outside of London, looking for a place where their sons, 9-year-old Marcus and his 7-year-old brother, could grow up with more innocence than life in London's orbit could offer.
At first the farm offered exactly the idyll they were seeking: The two boys spent their days romping among the cows, watching farmhands milk them and deliver their calves. They built tree houses and trebuchets out of spare pieces of wood and rode in the tractor of the farmer who had rented their house to them. Hutchins was a bright and happy child, open to friendships but stoic and “self-contained,” as his father, Desmond, puts it, with “a very strong sense of right and wrong.” When he fell and broke his wrist while playing, he didn't shed a single tear, his father says. But when the farmer put down a lame, brain-damaged calf that Hutchins had bonded with, he cried inconsolably.
Hutchins didn't always fit in with the other kids in rural Devon. He was taller than the other boys, and he lacked the usual English obsession with soccer; he came to prefer surfing in the freezing waters a few miles from his house instead. He was one of only a few mixed-race children at his school, and he refused to cut his trademark mop of curly hair.
But above all, what distinguished Hutchins from everyone around him was his preternatural fascination and facility with computers. From the age of 6, Hutchins had watched his mother use Windows 95 on the family's Dell tower desktop. His father was often annoyed to find him dismantling the family PC or filling it with strange programs. By the time they moved to Devon, Hutchins had begun to be curious about the inscrutable HTML characters behind the websites he visited, and was coding rudimentary “Hello world” scripts in Basic. He soon came to see programming as “a gateway to build whatever you wanted,” as he puts it, far more exciting than even the wooden forts and catapults he built with his brother. “There were no limits,” he says.