While taking an IT class, famous cybercriminal gains access to one of his prison's closed network

Back in 2009, Nicholas Webber bragged he was "probably the most wanted cybercriminal just now".  Today, the infamous UK cybercriminal has gone from wanted to imprisonment, serving his sentence in a UK correctional institution, HMP Isis.  

Opened in 2010, the pricey £110M ($166.3M USD) facility is supposed to provide a flexible, but secure environment for 18 to 24 year-old criminals.  But the prison's extensive security measures -- which include thumbprint biometrics -- were unable to stop the brilliant, but troubled youth from hacking his jailers' network from the inside in a stunning security breach.

I. From Boarding School to Card Crime

The son of a local Guernsey politician, Tony Webber, Nicholas was sent to the prestigious Bradfield College boarding school in Berkshire, whose tuition is around $36,400 USD a year.  During his time at the school he became interested in programming and showed off an uncanny aptitude for digital mischief.  He was caught hacking into school systems to delete one of his friend's detention records.

But ultimately it was his disappointing GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) results that led to him being booted from the boarding school, not his hacking.  His school would later describe him as having trouble socializing with his peers.  After effectively flunking out, Nicholas Webber decided to try his hand at an entrepreneurial venture -- a site called Gh0stMarket.

Bradfield College
Mr. Webber flunked out of Bradfield College at age 16. [Image Source: Geograph Graham Horn]

His barrister would later describe the site as "Crimebook as opposed to Facebook."

Prosecutor Hugh Davies would describe Mr. Webber as having "full control" over the site.  He describes the forum, stating, "The Gh0stMarket forum had approximately 8,000 members worldwide. It existed simply to facilitate the criminal trade in compromised credit cards, access to online bank accounts and distribution of malicious software and computer hacking tricks."

The site also contained manuals on in-real-life (IRL) crime methods such as manufacturing crystal meth and explosives.

II. Living Large

Mr. Webber had business cards printed and brazenly advertised the site ( as a specialist internet crime service.  The hacker himself was a poster child for the site, specializing in creating Zeus-derived worms to infect computers and steal credit card numbers.  He ran a sister site to facilitate his criminal trade.

He is estimated to have stolen around 132,073 credit card numbers, and committed an estimated £15-18M ($22.6-27.2M USD) in fraud.  He brazenly wore a shirt proclaiming "legendary carder" in pictures he posted online, referring to his talent at stealing credit cards.

Nicholas Webber
Mr. Webber, prior to his arrest [Image Source: Central News]

Before long the young man was living a life few his age could dream of.  He bought a black Hummer SUV and funneled money into an offshore bank account in Costa Rica.  But something went wrong.  Mr. Webber and his partner Ryan Thomas were arrested on Oct. 12, 2009 for trying to pay for a £1,000 ($1,500 USD) bill for a penthouse suite at the at the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane, Central London with a stolen credit card.

Released on bail, Mr. Webber fled to the Spanish island of Majorca with his cohort Mr. Thomas.  

The pair for a time lived in a rented flat in Port D’Andrax.  In a post to before its Nov. 2 shutdown by authorities, he tells his former "business partners":

I’m probably the most wanted Cyber Criminal right now, so I gotta keep underground for a while.

I hope that GM has helped members to meet new people and do successful business with others, and that you can understand Big Sh** is Poppin.

Remember guys and girls, to be a Legend Carder, u gotta be a Ghost ;) Watch your back and F*** the Police!

But when Mr. Webber tried to return to the UK in January 2010 he was arrested at the Gatwick airport.  In 2011 he was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit fraud, conspiracy to make or supply articles for use in fraud and encouraging or assisting offences.

III. Keep Calm and Hack On

That's where the story might have ended, were it not for a seemingly innocuous educational program at HMP Isis, the prison to which Mr. Webber was assigned.  The program was designed to teach inmates information technology (IT) skills to help them find a job after their release.

Somehow no one at the prison seemed to put two and two together and realize that putting a computer in the hands of Mr. Webber, a convicted hacker, might be dangerous.

In late 2011 in a class taught by Kensington and Chelsea College instructor Michael Fox, Mr. Webber used his computer access to hack into prison networks creating a "major panic".

Prison IT officials comment to Sophos : Naked Security:

At the time of this incident in 2011 the educational computer system at HMP Isis was a closed network. No access to personal information or wider access to the internet or other prison systems would have been possible.

IV. Wild Hack Finally Comes to Light 

The incident was kept off the radar until the matter came before the Croydon Employment Tribunal as part of a case brought by Mr. Fox against his former university employer.

Following the hack Mr. Fox was not fired, but was not assigned new positions.  He comments, "The perceived problem was there was a tutor who had been excluded by the prison and charged with allowing a hacking expert to hack into the prison’s mainframe."

The college’s business development director, Shanie Jamieson, who appears on Mr. Fox's side said: "He [Mr Fox] did not feel he had done anything wrong as the student concerned was in his view a convicted computer hacker and should not have been allowed in his classroom."

ISIS Prison
The HMP Isis facility has been plagued with technical issues.

As a result of the effective dismissal the full tail of the unusual and embarassing hack came to light.

The tale marks the latest odd twist in the career of Mr. Webber.  And for HMP Isis, it raises more serious questions of technical incompetence.

This was not the first incident at the prison.  Back in January 2012 a report by government inspectors suggested the prison was "bedevilled" by faulty technology. During a five-day inspection the prison's biometric thumbprint recognition system broke every single day.

Sources: Sophos, Daily Mail

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