British cyber security researcher Marcus Hutchins admitted in a police interview to creating the code that harvests bank details and “indicated” that he sold it, a US prosecutor told a court on Friday.
But Mr Hutchins, hailed as a hero for stopping the spread of the WannaCry virus in May, plans to plead not guilty on all six counts, his lawyer said.
He was granted bail under strict conditions that he pay a $30,000 bond and remain in the US.
Andrew Mabbitt, a fellow security researcher, said he was raising the money for the bail with an online fundraiser, after having collected letters of recommendation from people who know Mr Hutchins.
The US authorities gave no indication that they had found a suspect when Mr Hutchins entered the country for a cyber security conference last month.
But on Thursday they zeroed in on the 23-year-old as he was about to return to the UK, arresting him on charges of selling, advertising and profiting from a malicious software known as Kronos.
Hours before Mr Hutchins was due to land in London, a close friend realised something was wrong when he stopped replying to messages from the Virgin lounge in Las Vegas’ McCarran airport. Silence is unusual from the prolific tweeter and texter, who is known as “MalwareTech” online.
Because of the nature of the work he does, there are a lot of questions that they might want to ask him. We thought maybe they want to ask him about the WannaCry attack
The friend, who declined to be named, began to call detention centres and hospitals for information and located him in Nevada. He alerted Mr Hutchins’s mother, a nurse, who was waiting for her son at Gatwick airport.
“Because of the nature of the work he does, there are a lot of questions that they might want to ask him,” the person said. “We thought maybe they want to ask him about the WannaCry attack.”
A gifted cyber security researcher, Mr Hutchins, who is from Ilfracombe in North Devon, on the south-west coast of England, rose to prominence earlier this year for stopping the spread of the virulent WannaCry ransomware attack that debilitated the National Health Service and multinational companies in May. He found a “kill switch” baked into the software by its creators.
Mr Hutchins’s technical skills have earned him a formidable reputation among other cyber security analysts — and a big salary for his job with the US-based cyber security consultancy Kryptos Logic.
“People will feel less confident working with intelligence agencies on cyber crime,” said Graham Cluley, a cyber security analyst. “We all do that . . . hackers hang out on underground forums to understand the other side.”
Mr Hutchins worked from home and frequently collaborated with UK law enforcement to identify hackers online. However, according to three sources, the National Crime Agency, the National Cyber Security Centre and Foreign Office were not aware that he was being investigated.
Mr Hutchins’ family have yet to meet their son since his arrest, according to the friend.
“We are aware of the situation,” the NCSC said in a statement. “This is a law enforcement matter and it would be inappropriate to comment further.”
The Foreign Office added: “We are in contact with the local authorities in Las Vegas following the arrest of a British man, and are providing support to his family.”
The NCA said: “We are aware an arrest has happened but it’s a matter for the US or the Foreign Office as it is a UK national who has been arrested overseas.”
Peter Heaton-Jones, the MP for North Devon, expressed the “concern and shock expressed by many local people”, adding that he had written to the Foreign Office seeking assurances that Mr Hutchins was receiving consular assistance.
“I accept the UK cannot interfere in the judicial process of another country, and I make no judgment about the case against Marcus one way or another,” he said in a statement. “However, people who know him in Ilfracombe, and in the wider cyber-community, are astounded at the allegations against him.”
Additional reporting by Hannah Kuchler in San Francisco and agencies
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