Can You Guess Which US Retailer Hired A Former Virus Spreading Teen As IT Security?

Hacked_BearI will start by saying that some technical mischief as a teenager (or later) does not automatically make a prospective employee undesirable.  More often than not it makes them more desirable because you know they’ve been willing to dig in and get their hands dirty.  Whether that means they took the family computer apart and it took them a few extra days to put it back together the first time, testing to see if that password you found online for the ATM machine will actually grant you access, or when their college professor said the college’s network was 100% secure took that as an assignment and were later expelled for proving that incorrect. These are the people who enjoy the ins and outs of IT and are willing to dive in where others take a step back and ask for help or simply choose not to venture.

That being said, an employer also needs to be able to understand the difference between those whose interests inadvertently went too far and those who were intentionally malicious or destructive.

Now let’s look at the case of the Home Depot breach where cyber criminals used malware to steal about 56 million customer details including credit card numbers.  Home Depot’s former Senior Architect for IT Security, Ricky Joe Mitchell, as reported by Ars Technica has a past centered on the destructive side not the curious one.

Everyone in technology on the Internet has used a handle, ask your current IT guy, he may immediately tell you because it’s something harmless or funny like Scooby or Coolio, or he may blush and be hesitant to tell you because it’s something a little more risque like Rasta or Killa.  If he looks at you like you’re crazy , it may be time to look for another IT professional, one who’s gotten their hands a little dirty using a handle to cause a little mischief.  Coincidentally I know IT professionals who sported each of those handles, they are all excellent at the different IT positions they hold today, truly an asset to the companies they work for.  I would hire anyone of them in a heartbeat.

Back to Ricky Joe Mitchell, whose handle is RickDogg and on his 1996 personal website Mitchell provided a description of himself with the title “The story of RICKDOGG”.  An excerpt of that story:

“Anyway, I love to write and distribute Viruses.  They intrigue me.  I have taught myself how to program in assembly, c– and pascal. I also love to fix computers as well. I am considered smart in school although I am very lazy. I do not like the shit they try to teach me so I get bored and try to liven things up a bit.”

Apparently livening things up included planting viruses in his high school’s computer system.  Mitchell was suspended for three days for planting “108 computer viruses from floppy diskettes to disk space allocated and assigned to another student on the Capital High School computer system.” per a memo to the Kanawha County School Board members, now part of court documents.  Mitchell went further, publishing “derogatory statements about the teachers and made threats to students he believed reported the virus”, per the Charleston Gazette causing him to be expelled from Capital High School.

RickDogg didn’t just hack in to poke around or change a grade, he uploaded viruses an act that is always destructive, right there as an employer I’d encourage anyone to walk away.  Do people change?  Absolutely.  Is that a risk worth taking with your company data and infrastructure?  No, in my opinion.

Years went by and if there is anything questionable that occurred in the interim it is not currently known.  And then RickDogg found out he was going to be terminated from EnerVest Operating in June 2012.  Here is the reason when it comes to your network security, terminations should be fast and efficient. Upon learning of his impending termination Mitchell, “remotely accessed EnerVest’s computer systems and reset the company’s network servers to factory settings. As a result of his intentional conduct, EnerVest was unable to fully communicate or conduct business operations for approximately 30 days. In addition, data that the company thought had been backed up could not be retrieved.” Included in a Department of Justice press release after his conviction.

The indictment itself goes on to offer more details on the accusations, “…Mitchell did knowingly cause the transmission of a program, information, code, and command, and as a result of such conduct, cause damage without authorization, to a protected computer. That is…Mitchell accessed without authorization the protected computer and deleted backup information, transmitted a command to disable the data replication process designed to transmit backup data to the Houston, Texas location, deleted all of the Company’s phone system accounts and extensions, deleted all accounting data, and deleted all information validation for the Houston, Texas location among other acts.  …The acts of defendant Ricky Joe Mitchell caused damage…which resulted in a loss to the Company substantially in excess of $1,000,000.”

You’d think the story of RickDogg would end here, with his January 2014 conviction and April 2014 sentencing to 4 years in federal prison, but it doesn’t because after his June 2012 firing he took a position with Home Depot where in March 2013 he would be promoted to a position in Home Depot’s IT security.

This month Home Depot has disclosed a security breach which puts at risk, “approximately 56 million unique payment cards”.  The malware is “believed to have been present between April and September 2014.”  A breach of 56 million credit cards takes the title of largest breach from Target, where 40 million credit cards were exposed.

Is Home Depot’s breach related in anyway to Ricky Joe Mitchell?  To date I’ve seen no comment from Home Depot or the Justice Department on this coincidence, but I’d hazard a guess that RickDogg’s time at Home Depot is being scrutinized very closely and if anything is found we’ll all know about it soon enough.


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