Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Judgment Jerry, Judgment!

The worst mistakes are the ones you don't realise you're making. The most poignant mistakes are the ones that you don't realise you're making, but everyone else does realise, even though they're unable to help you.

It's time for some Tarantino-style non-sequential narratives about what happens when Silicon Valley co-founders get jilted. The Hacker News discussion is interesting, but I want to focus on another lesson that can't be repeated often enough.

Let's start with the cut-scene at the end, featuring YouSendIt co-founder Khalid Shaikh:
Shaikh agreed to pay $48,194 in restitution to YouSendIt. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for April 30, 2012. The sentencing guidelines recommend six to 12 months of imprisonment, but under the terms of the plea agreement, that may be reduced to house arrest.
Hmmm. How did this happen? Time to cut back to the narrator and where it began:
Ranjith Kumaran didn't found YouSendIt on his own, though. Another man, one whom YouSendIt doesn't like to talk about, wrote the original code, built the first servers by hand, and served as the first president. His name is Khalid Shaikh, and he's 34. He was a computer-engineering student at McGill University and a former intern at Microsoft, and he once worked at Hewlett-Packard and Intel. More recently, he has been living in a Motel 6 outside Denver, awaiting sentencing for launching a cyberattack three years ago that crippled YouSendIt's servers.
There's more details at inc.com, but the story is a common one in Silicon Valley - a bunch of guys start a company, big-time investors come on board, the investors plus one guy feel that the other guy isn't pulling his weight, other guy gets booted. Think the Facebook story, as told in The Social Network. Or Steve Jobs (although there it wasn't Wozniak that booted him).

Except this time the guy who got booted ended up bitter and launched a bunch of denial of service attacks on his former company, and (apparently) added to the poor decisions by messing with their wikipedia page. (Fire the passive-aggressive ion cannon!).
So, on a chilly Tuesday morning in December, Shaikh ran a piece of testing software, called ApacheBench, that flooded YouSendIt's servers with traffic. The servers keeled over immediately. Later that day, a sentence appeared on YouSendIt's Wikipedia page: "Looks like the company may be out of business, their site is down." (Shaikh says he didn't write it.)
Okay, so while I have sympathy with what it must be like to get booted from a company that you start, this guy has some pretty serious judgment issues. Apparently the FBI takes computer crime pretty seriously! Who knew?

So they started nosing around after Shaikh's former co-workers trying to find out what was going on. Shaikh got wind of this. Like a slow motion car crash that you can see coming, which of the following alternatives do you think Shaikh did?
a) Called around to find the best criminal defense lawyer he could
b) Cross his fingers and hope that the whole thing would blow over.
c) Decide to head down to talk to the FBI to straighten the whole thing out himself.
Yeah, no prizes for guessing the outcome:
That night, the couple returned to the FBI office. [Shaikh's wife] Saroash was told to wait in the lobby while her husband was interviewed in an adjoining room. Because it was late on a Friday, and almost everyone at the FBI office had gone home, no one noticed when she got up and listened at the door. Inside, the agents asked Shaikh about his background. He told them about going to McGill, moving to the Valley, founding YouSendIt.
They're just asking about my background! What harm could it do?
The agents began asking Shaikh about buying and selling websites with the teenager. They asked him about a site called e.tv. It had been stolen, they said. They asked Shaikh if he knew anything about the sale of that site. Shaikh wouldn't say. Then they showed him documentation that the money for the sale, about $18,000, had been transferred online using Shaikh's IP address.
Oh. Ooooohhhhh.

Hmm, that's quite a pickle, no?
"That puts me in a very negative light," Shaikh said, according to the FBI report.
1. You don't say!

2. You're going to enjoy hearing that quoted back at you at trial.
"Where do we go from here?" He asked the agents if they knew of any "FBI-friendly attorneys."
Now I'm just feeling sorry for the guy. He's so clueless that he's asking the guys whose job it is to put him in the hole with help on how to get himself out of the hole. Good luck with that.
The couple hired a criminal defense attorney and prepared for the worst.
Like buying a fire extinguisher after you just burned down your house by trying to deep fry a frozen turkey.
About a week after Shaikh's wife gave birth to a girl, their lawyer received discovery documents that included FBI reports. Shaikh had said enough during that meeting to give the FBI plenty of evidence to work with.
No kidding! *facepalm*.

Red hot tip - when the interview is over, you'll always have given the FBI plenty of evidence to work with. Trust me.

In this case, the FBI had already gotten a former friend to wear a wire and record a conversation, so he may have been boned anyway.

BUT WHY WOULD YOU GO TALK TO THE FBI BEFORE YOU'VE HIRED A LAWYER??? Especially when you know you're guilty!!

Remember, these investigators are seasoned professionals whose sole job it is to get you to incriminate yourself. They've done this thousands of times. You've done this... never. Who do you think is going to win?

Like a lamb to the slaughter. 

Suppose that you're too broke to hire a lawyer. What can you do then?

I recommend you follow this 24-carat gold advice from Penn Jillette on what you should do when the FBI wants to talk to you.

shut the fuck up

Speak to the cops in haste, repent at leisure.

(subject line reference)


  1. Deport the idiot as too dumb to be in the land of milk and honey.

  2. Unfortunately, I think this kind of mistake is much more common than you'd think. A whole lot of policework proceeds on exactly this basis.

    In other words, if you deported everybody who has fallen or would fall for this trap, you'd put a sizable dent in the population of America.