An interview with the anonymous teenage hacker who built an easy way to hold computers to ransom

Somewhere in the world there is a teenage boy with pretty good hacking skills who’s selling his illegal hacking platform for almost $US5,000. I spent the last two weeks trying to get ahold of him.

Using a variety of anonymized communication methods, I finally did.

His program is called Tox, and he wouldn’t tell me his real name.

What is Tox?

Tox operates on the Dark Web, meaning the only way to access it is to use a network — like Tor — to anonymize your traffic. It launched some weeks back and made it insanely easy to build what’s called ransomware. These malicious pieces of software, when downloaded on victims’ computers, hold files hostage until they pay a ransom.

Tox automates the malware-building process, and then taking a cut of the ransom if the victims pay.

It’s a devilishly simple idea, pretty much democratizing malicious hacking. So once people became aware of Tox, it took off. In only a few weeks, wrote its creators a week back, “the platform counted over one thousand users.”

Then, he did something unexpected.

The maker of Tox decided to give it up. In a Pastebin post, the anonymous hacker announced his plans to stop the scheme. He added that he would sell it to another hacker if the price was right.

I wanted to know why. So, using email encryption I contacted him to see if he would talk. He would, so long as we continued chatting using anonymizing means. So we took it to a platform called TorChat.

Over the course of a few days, I got to know this mysterious person behind Tox to the best of my ability. “I keep my life separated,” he wrote, “as mixing them is often a good way to end in prison.”

He’s right, too. What he made was a pretty powerful tool that made it relatively easy for people to extort endless funds from others. But, according to him, it got too big too fast. And he wasn’t sure if this was the direction he wanted to go in.

The genesis

“Tox was an experiment,” he wrote to me in the chat, “and I wasn’t ready to host such a big platform. It’d be difficult, it’s dangerous, and it’s bad on own [sic].”

Like so many great ideas, the idea for Tox dawned on him while he was in the shower. He had been teaching himself to hack for about a year, and had been studying “hidden services” for a few months.

Tox screenshot 1Screenshot via McAfeeTox is explicit about what it’s for — ‘create a virus.’

Once the idea for Tox was in his head, he couldn’t let it go. For weeks he tinkered, slowly building out the program. Finally it got to a place where he could put it online.

Tox quite possibly earned him a place in the annals of the dark web. He began interacting with others on anonymous forums, and began to get a rise out of it. “I love to have the privilege to talk with those mysterious people nobody know,” he said.

At the same time, he never considered himself a card-carrying member of the dark web, and doesn’t even like the idea of being a malicious hacker.

“It was an experiment, I’m not a malware writer!” he wrote.

“I’m going to conquer the world!”

But as experiments go, this one seemed to exceed expectations. It also gave him a huge ego boost just knowing he could write a powerful web program that could cause so much conversation and destruction.

And so, he’s walking away, hoping to sell it for at least 20 bitcoin (which is equal to approximately $US4,600). He says he’s already received many offers, and is trying to operate things so that he can be sure to get his money and that Tox is put in the right hands. He’s also teaching himself the commerce behind the online black market, looking for escrow services that will help him and the potential buyer complete the transaction.

Of course, no matter what, the right hands are some other hacker hoping to cash in by making malware available to the masses.

I asked him whether or not he felt bad for making it.

He hedged, saying that he doesn’t want to hurt people with his programs. He added, “It may seem like selling Tox I’m still doing bad to people, and I thought about this, but it doesn’t matter if I sell it or not as other people will implement something like this in the near future.” His may be the first, but there will be many more Tox clones down the line.

For now, he’s going to stop writing malicious code. He has other experiments he wants to tinker with. “After what happened I’m pretty sure I can do something this big again, but I want it to be something I can publicly be proud of.”

What kind of big things does this Tox maker have in store?

“I’m going to conquer the world of course!” he said.

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