How One Hacker Unintentionally Triggered one of the Biggest Data Thefts of All Time

George "geohot" Hotz found himself with overnight notoriety when, in 2007 at the age of seventeen, he successfully unlocked an iPhone — the first known to do so, bragging about it online.

In January, 2010, he became the first hacker successfully to break through all of the restrictions Sony had put on the PlayStation 3. Sony responded with a patch which, in January, 2011, Hotz also cracked. Internet fame followed, along with a massive lawsuit.

The May 7 issue of the New Yorker features a lengthy profile of Hotz in which they examine how one kid from New Jersey became a cause celebre for Anonymous, and—directly or not—a catalyst for the massive PSN hack that exposed 77 million users information and kept the service offline for nearly a month.

Reporter David Kushner interviewed Hotz about the original PS3 hack and the lawsuit that followed. "Internet protests, like street protests, have a way of spinning out of control. People chant peacefully, but then someone throws a rock through a window and rioting begins," Kushner observes. He continues:

Back in his parents' house, in front of the glowing computer screens in his cluttered bedroom, Hotz clicked with mounting apprehension through the news of Anonymous's plans. "I hope to God Sony doesn't think this is me," he remembers thinking. He didn't believe in secretive online warfare, much less in defecating on someone's doorstep. "I'm the complete opposite of Anonymous," he told me. "I'm George Hotz. Everything I do is aboveboard, everything I do is legit."

On April 11th, Sony announced that it had reached an agreement with Hotz, who denied wrongdoing but consented to a permanent injunction barring him from reverse-engineering any Sony product in the future. But Hotz's supporters felt that the injunction was a form of censorship. Some of his defenders made "FREE GEOHOT" shirts, and others went to Sony stores in cities such as San Diego and Costa Mesa to protest. Black-hat hackers called for more destructive attacks against Sony.

A week later, on April 19 of that year, Sony techs noticed their servers acting oddly, and the rest became history. Sony Online Entertainment and Sony Pictures took hits not long after, as well as a number of other gaming- and tech-related companies and sites; 2011 was an extremely busy year in hacks.

Since the resolution of the lawsuit, Hotz has mainly been lying low (except for an incident earlier this year where he was arrested in Texas for marijuana possession). He worked for Facebook briefly, then left the position.

Meanwhile, it seems Sony did indeed learn something meaningful from the whole disaster. After the lawsuit was settled, Sony engineers invited Hotz to their offices to teach them just how he'd beaten their systems.

Machine Politics: The man who started the hacker wars [New Yorker]

(Top photo: Shutterstock)