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Jonathan grew up in the most ordinary family by American standards: his father, Robert James, was a programmer, his mother a housewife. Even at the age of six, he began to show an interest in computers and regularly sat at the keyboard of his father's home machine, playing games. In interviews published after his son's death, Robert James recalled that he repeatedly installed various parental controls on his PC because Jonathan was stuck behind the screen all night long, which negatively affected his studies at school.



But he invariably found cunning ways to circumvent the restrictions imposed by his parents. Apparently, this was the very first hacking experience of young Jonathan James. As he grew older, the boy's interests gradually changed: after playing enough games, he began to gradually learn the C language.



One day, Jonathan completely surprised his father: upon returning from work, he discovered that his son had removed Windows along with all the software from his personal computer, after which he installed Linux there to test the unfamiliar operating system and understand how it worked.

When Jonathan was 13 years old, his passion for high technology seemed to his parents too painful and dangerous to his health. At a family council, it was decided to take away the teenager’s computer, on which he spent most of his free time during the day and almost all night. In response, Jonathan ran away from home and categorically refused to return until he was given back access to his personal computer. As an argument, the young man insisted that programming and video games did not in any way affect his studies at school, where he invariably received high marks.



Which, however, is not surprising: a little later it turned out that Jonathan had successfully hacked into the computer network of educational institutions in Miami-Dade County and periodically corrected his own scores on report cards. Around the same time, Jonathan James came up with the nickname C0mrade, under which he communicated with other hackers on forums and in personal correspondence.


Through thorns to the stars

Jonathan quickly became bored with dabbling with electronic grade books, and he decided to choose a bigger goal for himself. The first serious victim of the fifteen-year-old hacker C0mrade was a division of AT&T called BellSouth, which is one of the largest telecommunications companies in the United States, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. Little is known about the details of this hack, and moreover, BellSouth itself learned that the company’s servers were attacked by C0mrade only when the hacker himself admitted to this episode after his arrest. "We get hacked on a regular basis," BellSouth spokesman Spero Canton told the Tampa Bay Times, "and there was one incident that happened around the time that Jonathan is talking about."



Apparently, this hack did not cause any damage to BellSouth, since C0mrade’s main goal was not profit, but entertainment and testing his own knowledge. He later told reporters: “I know UNIX and C like the back of my hand because I read a lot of books and was constantly hanging out at the computer. The most difficult thing is not penetrating the system, but learning and gaining knowledge so that you can then understand what can be done with it.”

Inspired by success, Jonathan decided not to stop there. Sitting at night in his room at the Pentium-266 keyboard, he looked for vulnerable servers that he could connect to, bypassing the security system installed by the administrators. On June 29, 1999, one such server was discovered in Huntsville, Alabama. By installing a malicious program on it, the young hacker managed to increase his own privileges in the system and gain access to 13 other computers on the hacked network.



As it turns out, the server and network that C0mrade infiltrated belong to a NASA division called the George Marshall Space Flight Center. This government research organization develops and tests advanced rocket engines, as well as creating communications systems and software for the International Space Station.



Among other interesting information that Jonathan James gained access to was the source code of the program that serves to control critical life support elements of the International Space Station.



According to NASA experts, this software was intended to maintain the physical environment in the ISS's habitable compartments, including control of temperature and humidity. Experts estimated the cost of this software at $1.7 million, although James himself later claimed that “these source codes turned out to be complete junk and are not worth that amount.”



By the way, after this remark, part of the source code for the ISS, to which he gained access, was completely rewritten.

After discovering the intrusion, Marshall Center staff disconnected the compromised server and computers from the network for 21 days to analyze the reasons and chronology of the hack. This caused $41,000 in direct damage to NASA. Around the same time, NASA security reported information about the attack to the FBI, and federal agents began a painstaking search for a mysterious, powerful hacker who had encroached on the US national space program. Who attended classes at Miami-Dade Community College with other schoolchildren during the day, and surfed the Internet at night in search of vulnerable servers that he could penetrate out of pure curiosity.


Crime and Punishment

On a September evening in 1999, Jonathan James, while scanning the network, discovered that some unknown well-wisher had installed a backdoor on one of the servers in Dulles, Virginia. The Trojan allowed virtually anyone to connect to the server from the Internet, which C0mrade immediately did.



At that time, the young hacker did not yet know that the compromised server belonged to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), one of the divisions of the US Department of Defense that analyzes external threats to the country’s national security. Without thinking twice, James installed a sniffer on the server and began analyzing the traffic passing through it in search of logins, passwords and other interesting information.

The catch turned out to be rich. Between September and October 1999, he was able to intercept DTRA user credentials that gave him access to 10 Department of Defense computers and allowed him to download more than 3,300 emails from the mailboxes of Pentagon employees.



Jonathan studied their contents with interest and examined the files found on hacked computers, without paying due attention to issues of anonymity. Naturally, the successful penetration into the internal network of one of the Pentagon's subsidiaries (as the US Department of Defense claimed - the first in history) could not go unnoticed. The investigation did not last long and ended on January 26, 2000 - on this day, Department of Defense agents and police from the Pinecrest Law Enforcement Department were ordered to arrest the hacker.

“I admit, that day I became a very popular dude in college when these guys in bulletproof vests and with machine guns broke into my house,” Jonathan James later told reporters with a smile. A search of his home resulted in agents seizing six devices: four desktop PCs, a laptop and one PDA.



After his arrest, Jonathan began to actively cooperate with the investigation and tell the police how he managed to commit all these break-ins. “They were, of course, worried that someone underage could easily break into a government organization’s network,” the hacker later said. “Their main problem is that they do not pay enough attention to safety. But they seem to at least understand it.”



It played into James’ hands, first of all, that he did not take any destructive actions on the hacked systems - he did not change passwords, did not delete files, and did not launch viruses. In addition, he was a minor: he was only 15 years old at the time of the crimes, and had just turned 16 on the day the verdict was announced. If Jonathan James had been an adult, he would have faced at least 10 years in prison and a large fine. But due to his young age, and also because he made a deal with the investigation, voluntarily admitting guilt in two incriminated episodes (hacking of NASA and the US Department of Defense), the court found him guilty of “crimes committed by a minor,” since other criminal articles under the laws the state could not be applied to him at this age.



The punishment also turned out to be very humane: James received six months of house arrest and a ban on using the computer for entertainment purposes (however, he could still sit down at the keyboard if it was necessary for study). In addition, the hacker had to make a written apology to NASA and the US Department of Defense for what he had done.

However, the leniency of the sentence apparently did not do James any good. Soon he was detained by the police on the street for violating the terms of house arrest, and in addition, traces of drugs were found in his tests. As a result, the court changed the suspended sentence to a real one, and Jonathan went to jail for another six months, which he had to spend in a juvenile correctional center.



This was the first time in the United States that a teenager had been sent to prison on charges of committing a computer crime, and therefore the story attracted increased attention from the press. In an interview with the Miami Herald, Jonathan James claimed that he was determined to give up hacking. “It’s not worth it,” he told the reporter, “I did it just for fun, for me it was a game, and they’re putting me in jail. I don't want this to happen again. I can find other things to do for fun.”

Having fully served the sentence imposed by the judge, Jonathan was released and for some time disappeared from the sight of the intelligence services and the press, deciding to lead an ordinary secluded life in his parents’ house in Pinecrest. Unfortunately, this solitude, like the life of Jonathan James itself, did not last long.


Death of a Hero

On January 17, 2007, a group of hackers led by well-known cyber underground figure Alberto Gonzalis launched a series of massive attacks on major US trade and financial organizations. Among the victims were the popular American supermarket chain TJX, the BJ wholesalers club, Boston Market, Barnes & Noble, Sports Authority, OfficeMax and several other commercial enterprises. As a result of the attack, hackers stole the credit card data and personal information of millions of clients of these firms, and the firms themselves (as well as their reputation) suffered significant damage.

During the investigation of the incident, the United States Secret Service identified Gonzalis' associates involved in this crime. Several of them knew and communicated on hacker forums with Jonathan James, which is why he also came under suspicion. These suspicions were given weight by the fact that an unknown hacker, hiding under the pseudonym “JJ,” collaborated with Alberto Gonzalis.



This attacker stole credit card data and PIN codes by hacking into the wireless network of office supply stores OfficeMax, and later gave the stolen money to Gonzales, creating an anonymous mailbox for him. The nickname "JJ" was the same as Jonathan James' initials. This circumstance, as well as online acquaintance with members of Alberto Gonzalis’ team, was enough for Secret Service agents to raid the homes of Jonathan James himself, his brother and his girlfriend. Later, however, investigators came to the conclusion that the mysterious anonymous person “JJ” was most likely Gonzales’ close friend Steve Watt, who often signed online under the pseudonym “Jim Jones.” During the search, agents found nothing linking James to the crime. They found only a rifle in his house, which was not seized because it was officially registered.



Jonathan James' father Robert later recalled that after returning from prison, he suffered from depression and was often anxious and depressed. The search and constant surveillance that Jonathan felt behind him did not add to his peace of mind. Shortly after Secret Service agents raided the hacker's home, Robert called him asking if investigators would find anything that would allow them to press charges. Jonathan answered in the negative. This was the last conversation between father and son.

On Sunday, May 18, 2008, 25-year-old Jonathan James was found dead in the bathroom of his home with a gunshot wound to the head from the same legally registered rifle that agents did not seize during the search. Nearby was a suicide letter addressed to his father, brother and girlfriend. Among other things, it contained Jonathan's passwords to his PayPal and MySpace accounts.



In this note, Jonathan wrote: “I do not believe in our system of “justice” - my actions today and this letter may send a strong message to the public, but I have lost control of the situation and this is my only way to fix it. To be honest, I have nothing to do with this whole TJX thing. Even though Chris (Scott) and Albert Gonzales are the most dangerous and destructive hackers the feds have ever caught, I am far more tempting [as a victim] to the public eye than these two random idiots. That is life. Remember, it's not that you win or lose, it's that I personally win or lose by being in prison for 20, 10, or even 5 years for a crime I didn't commit. This is my way of winning, but at least I'll die free."

There are still rumors circulating in the hacker community that the circumstances of Jonathan James's death were staged, and the true cause of his death was supposedly top-secret information that he managed to obtain on NASA and Pentagon servers. This, they say, is the reason for the keen interest in his person on the part of the US Secret Service. But the official investigation ruled that James committed suicide [by Roskomnadzor], and all other versions are just idle speculation.

Be that as it may, the short life of Jonathan James is forever inscribed in the history of world hacking, no matter how pretentious it may sound. A short obituary published by the Miami Herald said: “Jonathan, who graduated from Beth Am in 1995, will be remembered by friends and family as an exceptionally bright young man who never did anything by the book. A computer genius by any definition of the term, he continually amazed friends, family and the government with his achievements. He will be greatly missed by his brother, father, aunt, uncle, cousins, grandparents and many, many friends.”

The writers of the obituary forgot to mention the fact that Jonathan “C0mrade” James was not just a hacker and a computer genius, but a hacker and a computer genius who, in general, did nothing wrong in his life. It is even sadder that his life was cut short so early.
 
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