As I See It: Barry, Barry Bad
July 25, 2011 Victor Rozek
More often than not, ethical behavior seems to be determined by distance–either real or virtual. The Internet provides a daily reminder that the more removed an offender is from the outcomes he creates, the more emboldened he becomes. And the corollary is also true: The more remote the victim, the easier it is to harm her. Stealing an old woman’s money from the safety of Nigeria is easier than mugging her in Des Moines.
Technology offers criminals, the mean-spirited, and what Hannibal Lecter described as “the free-range rude,” a high degree of immunity from discovery and retaliation. It’s as if being disconnected from the impact of their actions creates a moral blank check that the ethically challenged are eager to cash. Whether it’s the lords of finance fleecing a faceless middle class, an insurance company denying life-saving procedures, or a teen using social networks to post hurtful fabrications about his classmates, the ability to distance oneself from the harm being inflicted allows the umbrage to continue.
Which is why black hat hacking is so vile. It’s an act of malicious cowardice made possible by anonymity. Most of the time the perpetrators go undiscovered and unpunished, but once in a while the offender oversteps and consequences follow.
Just ask Barry Ardolf.
Ardolf is a 46-year-old Minnesota resident for whom things began to unravel shortly after a new family moved in next door. The Kostolniks had a 4-year-old son who, as curious kids sometimes do, wandered onto the neighboring property. Ardolf, himself a parent, did what any responsible neighbor would do: he picked up the toddler and brought him back home. But then things took a bizarre turn. Before handing the kid over to his parents, Ardolf gave the boy a big wet smooch, right on the lips.
Mr. Kostolnik no doubt thought this went well beyond acceptable welcome-wagon behavior. But instead of punching Ardolf in the nose and telling him to keep his lips off the little dauphin, Kostolnik–law-abiding attorney that he is–called the cops. Ardolf was outraged and, according to newspaper accounts, “vowed his revenge.”
Regrettably for the Kostolniks, Ardolf was a computer technician, and apparently a skilled one. Steamed over his public humiliation, he decided to make it his personal mission to ruin the otherwise tranquil lives of his new neighbors. Thus began a two-year campaign of digital torment.
First, he downloaded a WiFi hacking program and penetrated the Kostolniks’ WEP encryption. Then, Ardolf created several fake emails for Mr. Kostolnik, and a phony MySpace page. He began by sending lewd and otherwise inappropriate emails to Kostolnik’s friends. But that apparently didn’t satisfy his vengefulness, and eventually he escalated matters in a most abhorrent way. Ardolf posted child pornography on the MySpace page and emailed kiddy porn to co-workers at Kostolnik’s law office. Any day your boss receives kiddy porn from your email account is not shaping up to be a good one. Kostolnik had some ‘splainin’ to do. But he had no explanation, other than denying he’d sent it. Kostolnik’s firm took the trust-but-verify approach. To prove Kostolnik wasn’t guilty, it hired a network security firm to investigate the origins of the traffic.
But just when Kostolnik thought things might be getting better, they got worse. He got a visit from the last people you’d ever want to upset–the Secret Service, demanding to know why he was threatening the life of the Vice President of the United States.
Ardolf evidently decided that setting up Kostolnik as a violator of federal statutes against the possession and distribution of child pornography was not enough. Why not also stick Kostolnik’s finger in the eye of federal law enforcement? The messages he sent under Kostolnik’s name threatening Joe Biden included arrogant taunts such as: “I swear to God I’m going to kill you!” and “. . . this is a terrorist threat. Take it seriously!”
Which the Secret Service and the FBI did.
After interviewing Kostolnik, they quickly ascertained that he was not a wild-eyed threat to the executive branch, and immediately suspected identity theft. Having software resources of their own, they sniffed around the network and came across evidence of Ardolf’s involvement. The FBI promptly executed a search warrant for Ardolf’s home and computers and found sufficient evidence to charge him with identity theft, possession and distribution of child pornography, and making threats against the Vice President. Altogether not a good day for Ardolf. But it would get worse. The FBI discovered this was not Ardolf’s first foray into character assassination. He had staged a similar attack against a family in Brooklyn Park. Their offense? Parking their cars in front of his house.
Ardolf apparently has a short fuse and a vindictive nature. Still, the government, with bigger fish to fry, initially charged him with only a subset of his offenses and offered him a plea bargain. And here’s the beautiful part of the story, especially for anyone who has ever suffered at the hands of a hacker: Ardolf turned them down. So the government added the full suite of charges and by the second day of his trial, Ardolf saw the writing on the cell wall and changed his plea to guilty, no doubt hoping for judicial clemency.
U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank was not moved. Clearly agreeing with the prosecutor that Ardolf was guilty of “ruthless cruelty,” the justice dropped the hammer (gavel to be more accurate) and sentenced Ardolf to 18 years in prison with supervised release for an additional 20 years! Ardolf will also be forbidden to work on or with computers unless his probation officer approves. And, he must register as a lifetime sex-offender. Oh, and as they were dragging his mean, vindictive ass off to jail, the judge also levied a $10,000 fine. In an age of bundled software and bundled services, the judge delivered a stellar example of bundled sentencing.
To their credit, the Kostolniks didn’t sit in the front row at the sentencing hearing wearing party hats and waving noise makers. They did, however, report feeling safe in their own home for the first time in two years. Asked if he could ever forgive Ardolf, Mr. Kostolnik said he hoped so, “but not today.”
We may never know what flipped the switch in Ardolf’s brain and why–with single-minded malevolence–he continued down the path to self destruction. But we do know this about him: Like other hackers who are oblivious to–or simply don’t care about their impact–he had a radically skewed opinion of his own behavior.
When the FBI searched Ardolf’s home they found a bumper sticker on the wall above his bed. It read “Certified Ethical Hacker.”
Yeah, and denial is just a river in Egypt.