Cable Modem Hacker Busted by Feds

An expert on cable modem hacking has been arrested by federal authorities on computer intrusion charges.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Ryan Harris, 26, ran a San Diego company called TCNISO that sold customizable cable modems and software that could be used to get free Internet service or a speed boost for paying subscribers.

Harris, also known as DerEngel, was charged on Aug. 16, but the grand jury indictment was not unsealed until Monday, several days after his Oct. 23 arrest. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a US$250,000 fine, the DOJ said. The six-count indictment charges him with conspiracy, computer intrusion and wire fraud.

Hackers have known for years that certain models of cable modem, such as the Motorola Surfboard 5100, can be hacked to run faster on a network, a process known as uncapping. However, the question of whether uncapping a modem is illegal is "not clear," according to Bill Pollock, founder of No Starch Press, which published Harris's 2006 how-to book Hacking the Cable Modem.

Cable modems can also be configured to use a paying customer's MAC (Media Access Control) address to steal service. According to the indictment, Harris helped develop tools that could be used to sniff MAC addresses in order to get on the network free.

Harris isn't the first person to be charged with this type of activity. In January, Thomas Swingler was charged with selling cable modems that could be customized to get free Internet service.

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