Hacker Depictions

The three faces of Hamza Bendelladj, the “smiling hacker”

Hamza Bendelladj’s smiling face stands in sharp contrast with the stereotype of the hacker as a stone-clad figure hiding in the shadows. The Algerian national was arrested on January 2013 in Thailand during a flight connection between Malaysia and Egypt, at the request of the US government. Known as Bx1 in cybercrime forums, he sold malicious software used to operate botnets (an army of infected computers) and commit banking fraud. His photogenic smile provided the international press with an intriguing image: a congenial hacker accused of sophisticated technological crimes. Eventually extradited to the US, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced in April 2016 to 15 years behind bars. Depending on who you ask, Bendelladj was a cybercrime mastermind, a braggart, a digital Robin Hood, or a gifted young man who pushed the limits.

For their part, the US Department of Justice painted him as a cybercriminal responsible for $100 million in financial losses. The sentencing memorandum states that his software infected hundreds of thousands of victims around the world and that he went to great lengths to cover his online tracks. He lived the high life off his ill-gotten gains, flying first class and staying in luxury hotels.

His online peers offered a decidedly more sober—if no less harsh—perspective. In Darkode, the elite cybercrime forum he patronized, the initial dismay at his capture was quickly eclipsed by schadenfreude and dismissal.  “Bx1 has always been a loud guy that bragged a lot about his things,” opined one forum administrator. “When I first met him he showed me his carded Macbooks on webcam, including his face, so no wonder feds got to him eventually, I am just surprised it took them 5 years.”

Yet, a third narrative emerged from his native Algeria, where the images of his jovial demeanor evoked Larbi Ben M’hidi, a hero of Algeria’s War of Independence who displayed the same mischievous air of defiance in pictures. This symbolic filiation partly explains the myths around Bendelladj; social media users have elevated him to near Robin Hood status, crediting him variously with the hacking of European foreign affair ministries’ websites to secure travel visas for young Algerians and the donation of hundreds of millions of dollars to African and Palestinian charities. Supporting evidence is nowhere on offer, but the mythology runs strong.

Perhaps the most realistic picture came from his family. They portrayed him as a gifted young man from a humble background who dropped out of high school and developed his programming skills in cybercafés, before maybe going too far in testing his skills. But this decidedly level headed narrative failed to impress American justice officials who needed to make an example out of his arrest, his cybercrime peers who feared he would rat on them, and the social media masses in their never ending quest for modern folk heroes.

 

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