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Kernel.org Hacking Suspect Arrested in Florida

A 27-year-old computer programmer from South Florida has been charged and arrested for allegedly hacking into servers of the Linux Kernel Organization and the Linux Foundation. He is believed to be responsible for the 2011 breach of kernel.org servers.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced on Thursday that Donald Ryan Austin was arrested on August 28 during a traffic stop. The suspect was taken into custody based on an indictment returned by a California federal jury on June 23 and unsealed Tuesday.

According to authorities, Austin caused damage to four servers of the Linux Kernel Organization located in the Bay Area after obtaining the credentials of an individual associated with the organization. He is said to have installed malicious software, including rootkits and trojans, and made “other changes” to the targeted systems.

No other information has been provided, but this brief description suggests that Austin might be responsible for the 2011 hack of kernel.org, the official website of the Linux Foundation’s Linux Kernel Organization. (Update: The Linux Foundation has confirmed that the arrest is related to the investigation of the 2011 incident)

While the organization did not keep its promise to provide complete details on the incident, it did say that the attacker had accessed several servers using compromised credentials. The hacker logged user interactions, installed trojans and rootkits, and modified SSH files.

Austin has been charged under the controversial Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) with four counts of intentionally causing damage to a protected computer. He made his first court appearance on August 29 and he was released on a $50,000 bond on Thursday. The suspect faces up to ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count.

The attack on kernel.org servers started in mid-August 2011 and it was only detected 16 days later. The organization decided to rebuild its servers following the incident.

While many expressed their disappointment that the Linux Kernel Organization failed to keep its promise and disclose additional details, it is possible that it was prevented from doing so by the FBI, whose investigation helped prosecutors build a case against Austin. SecurityWeek has reached out to the Linux Kernel Organization for comment.

UPDATE. Mike Dolan, VP of strategic programs at The Linux Foundation, provided the following statement to SecurityWeek:

"We're grateful to the law enforcement officers who have diligently pursued this investigation since 2011. Because this matter is the subject of an active court case, we're unable to comment on it further. We will continue to support law enforcement officers by providing information as requested in support of this investigation."

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Eduard Kovacs is an international correspondent for SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.