The developer of a remote administration tool (RAT) called NanoCore is being prosecuted for the actions of the large user base of hackers of his software.
26-year-old Taylor Huddleston has been a distraught man since last December, when the FBI knocked on his door and proceeded to rifle through his home nestled in a corner of Hot Springs, Arkansas for the next 90 minutes.
The gun-toting FBI officials left with Huddleston’s computers and proceeded to arrest him two months later.
Huddleston was arrested on the grounds of aiding and abetting many hackers with several high-profile computer intrusions.
Huddleston’s first Windows RAT took years of finessing to earn the appraisal of “a simple but robust remote management tool” from one computer security firm.
It was Huddleston’s first software after Net Seal, a low-cost license management system that gave software developers-turned-hackers full access and control of their programs even when installed on other peoples’ computers.
According to Huddleston, his intentions when he created NanoCore was to provide a low-budget remote management software for IT-conscious firms, schools, and parents who wished to monitor their children’s activities online.
However, the authorities have retained their skeptical stance on the matter.
Senior threat researcher at Palo Alto Networks Anthony Kasza echoed the prosecution’s sentiments, saying that it is not easy to determine the purpose of a RAT from its features alone – it is the intent of the developer that matters.
NanoCore soon became a renowned tool for hackers galore.
So far, the RAT has been linked to computer intrusions in over 10 countries, one of which was a high-profile attack on an energy firm in the Middle East two years ago.
Hackers also turned NanoCore into a highly efficient phishing tool to commit a variety of other online crimes.
Despite the fact that Huddleston has no affiliation to any of these hackers, the US Department of Justice is convinced that being the developer of the RAT, he facilitated the commitment of these computer intrusions and, as such, he is an abettor to those rampant hackers’ crime sprees.
“I had a strict zero-tolerance policy against hackers,” says Huddleston
Huddleston had initially tried to mitigate the piracy of his software for malicious use by using his license management system, Net Seal.
Initially, he would adamantly refuse to allow NanoCore to be termed a malware and was very insistent about it.
Afterward, he began to disable all the remote NanoCore copies belonging to known or suspected malicious hackers, thereby disabling them from having an upper hand on their victims.
But as he had feared, the trend had already caught on.
Numerous hackers’ tutorials based on his software started flooding YouTube.
So, he decided to employ more stringent measures.
By discreetly changing the NanoCore user interface to display the user’s license ID, he was able to disable all the copies used by potentially malicious hackers in the YouTube videos.
As the hackers persisted, Huddleston was forced to strip NanoCore of its integral features, such as the ability to log passwords and keystrokes.
In retaliation, hackers sent a barrage of vicious emails to his account and started charging fraudulent payments to his affiliated PayPal account.
His business was failing because of his attempts to prevent hackers from abusing his tool.
Eventually, the hackers overwhelmed Huddleston when they finally cracked the code to Net Seal, thereby giving them the power to distribute pirated versions of NanoCore all over the internet.
Huddleston finally gave in during October 2016 when he sold both NanoCore and the Net Seal software for a grand total of $8,000.
Huddleston’s Prosecution may be a Face-Saving Technique
Cornell professor James Grimmelmann has noticed a worrying trend where government agencies martyr the nearest suspect in lieu of the tens or hundreds of unidentifiable hackers hiding behind intricate online obfuscation software like Tor.
Grimmelmann admits that for the government to settle for a mere software developer is strange; perhaps a sign of desperation or saving face.
Huddleston stands by his innocence on the matter, saying that no developer should ever be held responsible for the actions of the users of the software.
He insists that the only reason the government came specifically for him was because he, unlike major corporations such as TeamView (which was involved in one of the most sinister malware campaigns ever), is not shielded by a wall of lawyers and resources to bail him out of any situation.