Hardware Hacker Sentenced to 3 Years in Prison for Selling Rooted Cable Modems

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

Cable-modem hacker Ryan Harris has been sentenced to three years in prison for helping users steal internet access in what the authorities say was a $1 million scheme to defraud cable companies of business.

Harris, 28, was sentenced in federal court in Boston on Wednesday.

“I think you committed a very serious crime,” US District Judge Mark L. Wolf told Harris at his sentencing hearing, according to the Boston Globe.

Federal prosecutor Mona Sedky said at the hearing that Harris was motivated by greed and “acted with absolute, knowing malice,” in order “to punish the cable companies.”

Harris, who used the online handle DerEngel, was convicted earlier this year 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.

Harris sold “rooted” cable modems that could be used by buyers to obtain free internet service or bypass subscriber limits. Uncapped cable modems remove bandwidth filters imposed by cable ISPs, which can increase the speed of the modem and defeat any throttling or content filtering an ISP may try to do. Harris sold the modems through his company, TCNiSO, for up to $100, and provided other tools and information to help users modify their cable modems. He also published a book titled Hacking the Cable Modem: What Cable Companies Don’t Want You to Know.

One of the products his company sold was a packet sniffer dubbed “Coax Thief” that intercepted internet traffic to snag the media access control (MAC) addresses and configuration files of modems from neighbors.

Prosecutors argued that his business was set up specifically to help users masquerade as paying subscribers in order to obtain internet service for free or increase their access. 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.

But Harris argued that rooted modems were legal, and he should not be responsible for what users did with the modems.