Hacker's high life brought to end with 20-year sentence

Longest ever jail term, and failure of Asperger's syndrome defence, bodes ill for Gary McKinnon

This weekend, Albert Gonzalez, the most prolific commercial hacker in history, is beginning a 20-year jail sentence. Thus comes to an end a saga of crime, greed, and deft keyboard work that brought him a life high on the hog with a supercar and condo, his lady friends some fancy jewellery, and much grief to the millions of people whose credit card details he plundered. No one – least of all Gonzalez – knows how many card holders were affected, but the most cautious estimates put the total in the tens of millions.

Gonzalez, as these numbers suggest, was no acned amateur, hacking companies' records for the thrill of it. He was young – still only 28 – but so good at penetrating supposedly secure networks that at one time he was hired by US intelligence to trace other hackers. His obsession with computers began in childhood: while still in a Florida high school he was questioned by the FBI after breaking into an Indian government website. In 2003, Gonzalez (whose father came to the US from Cuba on a homemade raft in the 1970s) was arrested for hacking. He was not charged and agreed to become a government informant.

Yet even while he was performing this public service, he was penetrating the networks of major companies such as the clothing retailer TJ Maxx, supermarket 7-Eleven and Barnes & Noble bookshop, and stealing credit card details. Using the aliases "segvec", "soupnazi", and "j4juar17", he led a group of professional identity thieves in the US, Ukraine and Russia who made money by selling card data on the black market and taking "bundles of money" out of cash machines.

One of his team's principal techniques was "wardriving", in which he and two partners would cruise in a car past shops, and use a laptop to detect stores with vulnerable wireless internet signals. The trio would then install "sniffer programmes" to hoover up details of the cards and their owners and sell them on. By 2008, Gonzalez had 40 million credit card details on his servers.

His share of the proceeds was an estimated $2.8m (£1.9m), which he used to buy an apartment in Miami, a blue BMW, Rolex watches for his father and friends, a Tiffany ring for a girlfriend, and to stage a $75,000 birthday party. At one time, court documents revealed, he was rather put out when his money-counter malfunctioned and he had to count out $340,000 in $20 notes by hand. Such a chore.

His run came to an end in May 2008, when police raided the room at the lavish National Hotel, Miami Beach, where Gonzalez and girlfriend were staying. Among his possessions in Room 1508 were two computers, $22,000 in cash and a Glock 9mm handgun. Later, around $1.1m was found buried in his parents' Florida back garden. He pleaded guilty in trials late last year and was sentenced at hearings on Thursday and Friday. His two confederates – known as "Hacker 1" and "Hacker2" – remain at large.

Gonzalez's defence team claimed that their client showed behaviour "consistent with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism", but the courts in Florida and Boston still gave him two concurrent 20-year terms, the stiffest sentence ever recorded for a hacker. Their decision bodes ill for the British hacker Gary McKinnon, who is accused of penetrating Nasa computers, and whose extradition to the US will be judicially reviewed in May.

Gonzalez must also forfeit the remaining cash, his apartment and the car, while his friends must relinquish their Rolexes and the Tiffany ring.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Ashdown Group: Automated Tester / Test Analyst - .Net / SQL - Cheshire

£32000 per annum + pension, healthcare & 23 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A gro...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot