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The $600,000 Joyride: Local hacker and former LulzSec member on why he went to prison

Photo: Courtesy photos, License: N/A

Courtesy photos

Rivera and teacher Beatrice Villarreal in a photo from Rivera’s Somerset High yearbook

Photo: , License: N/A

Rivera’s first-place UIL awards in programming competitions

Browning ran with the gray hat World of Hell hacker collective in the early ’00s. Gray hats are somewhere between white and black, and are reminiscent of Anonymous in temperament. They would exploit poor security and deface the website with humorous notes. In a certain sense they were doing the companies a favor by pointing out security flaws.

True black hats don’t announce themselves. They’re more like Albert Gonzalez and the ShadowCrew. The group—which included hackers from the Ukraine, Estonia and China—was busted four years ago for the theft of 130 million credit card numbers stolen from several payment processors, ATM machines and retailers such as Target, TJ Maxx and J.C. Penny. (Gonzalez got 20 years while his main co-defendants got two, four, five and seven years.)

Rivera and some friends joined Browning’s network intrusion games—which initially were just several computers linked on a network. Over time, with help from engineers at Novell (a multinational software and services corporation), it evolved into something much more sophisticated.

“A whole level-based gaming system that taught the ins and outs from the beginning of hacking. Everything from standard UNIX tricks and tips all the way up to buffer overflow exploits, canary exploits and the hardcore stuff that happens on service-level applications,” Browning says.

Rivera’s team finished second their first time out and they continued to stay in touch, chatting about their mutual interest in 3D programming. “He did some things for me,” Browning says. “I always enjoyed hearing from him.”

For Rivera, it whet a thirst that only college would satisfy, though probably not how he thought.

Birth of Neuron

For most people, where they go to college makes a lot of difference. But for someone like Rivera, who did most of his learning on his own, it was more of an afterthought. That’s how he wound up at University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, Ariz.

“I didn’t really have an idea of where I wanted to go to college, and I didn’t really bother too much. School is not a huge thing for me at all. Coming out of network security, your schooling is kind of ‘OK, whatever, what have you done?’” Rivera says. “So I sent out my applications and UAT was the first one that came back. I got some other ones, but UAT came first and I thought, ‘Eh, that sounds like a good place.’ They had computer science and artificial life. ‘Eh, I’ll do that.’”

Rivera received UAT’s Ray Kurzweil Scholarship, which offset 30 percent of the college’s $10,000 per semester cost. He didn’t know anybody at the school, but he soon bonded with network security major Cody Kretsinger. They met hanging out in a larger group, started talking network security and then slipped away to try breaking into a couple “demo boxes” (i.e. free/legal targets) online. Kretsinger was four years older than the 19-year-old and knew much more about security. This intrigued Rivera.

They started palling around and hanging out every day. They ate together, took classes together and really grew to trust each other. In April 2011, Kretsinger approached Rivera about joining this group of hackers he was involved in, which would turn out to be freewheeling anarchic Anonymous spinoff, LulzSec.

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