Cable-Modem Hacker Convicted in Boston

Ryan Harris and his defense attorney Charles Mcginty leave the federal courthouse in Boston after the second day of Harris’ trial. Photo: Quinn Norton

Cable-modem hacker Ryan Harris has been convicted of helping users steal internet access that authorities say involved a $1 million scheme to defraud cable companies of business.

Harris, 26, was convicted in federal court in Boston on seven counts of wire fraud in connection to selling hacked cable modems and software that allowed users to bypass restrictions that providers placed on cable modems to filter content and cap usage. Each count comes with a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail and a $250,000 fine.

Harris, who used the online handle DerEngel, had published a book titled Hacking the Cable Modem: What Cable Companies Don’t Want You to Know and sold “rooted” cable modems that could be used to get free internet service or bypass subscriber limits. He sold preflashed cable modems through his company, TCNiSO, for up to $100, and also provided other tools and information to help users modify their cable modems.

The feds argue the business was set up to help users masquerade as paying subscribers in order to obtain internet service for free or increase their access. Harris argued that rooted modems allow for many tweaks that are perfectly legal and that he should not be responsible for what users did with the modems.

Uncapping a cable modem allows the user to remove bandwidth filters imposed by the cable ISP, which can increase the speed of the modem and defeat any throttling or content filtering an ISP may try to do.

One product Harris provided, a packet sniffer that he dubbed “Coax Thief,” intercepted internet traffic to snag the media access control (MAC) addresses and configuration files of modems from neighbors. TCNiSO and Harris provided customer support through forums hosted on the TCNiSO website.

The government asserted that by providing hacked firmware, tutorials and support to people who used the cable modems to steal internet service or upgrade their existing service in violation of their ISP’s terms of service, Harris participated in a conspiracy and aided their fraud.

The case could have larger implications for other technology tools that can be used for criminal purposes, such as software mods for mobile phones or even anonymizing software.

Harris is scheduled for sentencing May 23.