Minnesota man charged with hiring hackers

Published 9:30 pm Tuesday, November 7, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — In the first Minnesota case to address a new and growing form of cybercrime, federal prosecutors have charged a man with paying computer hackers to sabotage websites affiliated with his former employer.

The FBI said the case represents a growing form of cybercrime in which professional hackers are paid to inflict damage on individuals, businesses and others who rely on digital devices connected to the web.

Prosecutors said 46-year-old John Kelsey Gammell hired hackers to bring down Washburn Computer Group in Monticello, but also made monthly payments between July 2015 and September 2016 to damage web networks connected to the Minnesota Judicial Branch, Hennepin County and several banks.

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Gammell’s attorney, Rachel Paulose, has argued her client didn’t personally attack Washburn. Paulose has asked a federal magistrate to throw out evidence the FBI obtained from an unnamed researcher because that data could have been obtained by hacking.

“The government has failed to charge a single one of those ‘cyber hit men’ services, named and evidently well-known to the government,” Paulose said. “Instead, the government’s neglect has allowed the professional cyber hit men for hire to skip off merrily into the night.”

The Washburn attacks were “essentially a prank on a dormant site not doing business,” Paulose said.

“As a society that is increasingly reliant on network-connected devices, these types of cyberattacks pose a serious threat to individuals, businesses, and even our nation’s critical infrastructure,” said acting U.S. Attorney Gregory Brooker in Minneapolis.

State networks get an average of more than 3 million attempted cyberattacks daily, according to Minnesota IT Services, which administers the state’s computer systems.

“A lot of people think it’s just a nuisance,” said Chris Buse, Minnesota’s chief information security officer. “But it’s not. If you look at what government does — basic critical services — if those services don’t continue, people can literally die.”