One in four U.S. hackers is an FBI informant, according to an investigation by Britain's Guardian newspaper.
The world of computer hacking has been "so thoroughly infiltrated in the U.S. by the FBI and secret service that it is now riddled with paranoia and mistrust," the paper claims in a report published Monday.
The best-known example of the turncoat "phenomenon," the paper says, is Adrian Lamo, a convicted hacker who turned informant on Bradley Manning, a United States Army soldier who was arrested in May 2010 in Iraq on suspicion of of passing secret documents to the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks.
Writes the Guardian:
Manning had entered into a prolonged instant messaging conversation with Lamo, whom he trusted and asked for advice. Lamo repaid that trust by promptly handing over the 23-year-old intelligence specialist to the military authorities. Manning has now been in custody for more than a year.
Manning was held in solitary confinement in Quantico, Virginia, for nine months when he was moved to Fort Leavenworth in Texas, where some social interaction is allowed, in April.
According to the paper's report:
Cyber policing units have had such success in forcing online criminals to co-operate with their investigations through the threat of long prison sentences that they have managed to create an army of informants deep inside the hacking community.
In some cases, popular illegal forums used by cyber criminals as marketplaces for stolen identities and credit card numbers have been run by hacker turncoats acting as FBI moles. In others, undercover FBI agents posing as "carders" – hackers specializing in ID theft – have themselves taken over the management of crime forums, using the intelligence gathered to put dozens of people behind bars.
The Guardian quotes Eric Corley, who publishes the hacker quarterly 2600, as saying that 25 percent of hackers in the U.S. may have been recruited by the federal authorities.
"Owing to the harsh penalties involved and the relative inexperience with the law that many hackers have, they are rather susceptible to intimidation," Corley told the Guardian.
In describing how the FBI and secret service — established in 1865 to target currency counterfeiters, but recently better known as a VIP protection service — have used the threat of prison to create an "army of informants" among online criminals, the paper cites a book by Kevin Poulsen of Wired magazine titled "Kingpin."
Paulson was also the journalist to whom Lamo, who was working as an FBI informant, gave what he purported to be the full chat logs between Manning and Lamo in which Manning reportedly confessed to having been the source for the various classified U.S. cables, documents and video that WikiLeaks released.
Poulson, a former database cracker once sentenced to 51 months in jail after testimony by co-hackers, also first confirmed the arrest of Manning on suspicion of passing classified material to WikiLeaks.