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IT genius with a digital footprint that keeps cash-rich firms awake

By Dominic Omondi | March 12th 2017
Alex Mutungi Mutuku. (Photo: Courtesy)

Alex Mutungi Mutuku can easily win the dubious accolade of being Kenya’s finest cyber-criminal, at least if what he has been accused of is true.

At 28, Mutuku is already a household name in the country’s digital hubs, having been accused of executing some mind-boggling heists.

On Wednesday, the police in a sting operation arrested Mutuku and eight others suspected of hacking and stealing from State agencies such as the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA), the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and Saccos.

In an interview with Nation Media Group’s Business Daily in 2015, Mutuku described himself as a self-employed software developer who sells applications on Google Playstore for survival. However, there was no mention of the applications.

The Government believes that in 2015, he breached Safaricom’s impregnable system and made away with electronic airtime worth Sh20,000.

The airtime, which he allegedly later sold at half-price, was insignificant, but the ramification of the larceny was earthshaking. The allegations had sent a chilling message to corporations with a presence in the cyberspace: they were not safe.

Earlier in January, a court was told that Mutuku and a Mr Stanley Kimeu Mutua had infiltrated NIC Bank’s system, demanding to be paid Sh6.2 million in bitcoins. They were also charged with stealing Sh2.88 million from NIC Bank.

They allegedly threatened to publish confidential customer information that they had accessed through hacking.

Hacking is (the art of) gaining of access (wanted or unwanted) to a computer and viewing, copying, or creating data (leaving a trace) without the intention of destroying data or maliciously harming the computer.

Bitcoins, which Mutuku and his accomplice allegedly demanded, is itself a cryptic currency and payment system familiar to tech-savvy individuals such as Mutuku. This virtual currency has at times been used by criminals for money laundering.

Cybercrime – crime committed via the Internet or any other computer network – has been on the rise in Kenya and Africa in general, as more people take to online transactions.

According to a report by the audit firm, PWC, most corporations in Kenya can’t tell if they were victims of cyber-attacks, a situation experts describe as “blissful ignorance”. And young, tech-savvy individuals are raking in billions from this ignorance.

Mutuku has also been quoted in several media outlets to have boasted on his Facebook page of how he hacked Daily Nation’s system. We were not able to independently retrieve this posting. He was then able to retrieve the newspaper’s e-paper for free, a watershed moment that saw other publications fall to the same fate, thus denying them millions of shillings in revenue.

Besides the court cases that have been dogging him, the young millionaire has also had low personal moments. For example, it is said that he once attempted to commit suicide by slashing his wrists when he learnt that his fiancée was having an affair.

“Man I just feel like crap! I feel so disrespected. I have done everything for this girl...paid her school fees...applied jobs for her...even did an aptitude test for her till she got one... bought her a car...gave here [sic] money (in millions), but she isn’t satisfied,” said Mutuku on Facebook.

Hackers are not your typical thugs who have been pushed to crime by economic deprivation. If anything, people accused of such crimes are highly educated and have high chance of landing lucrative jobs.

PWC reports that the average age of today’s cyber criminal is between 21 and 30. They do not engage in crime to escape poverty, but to get into opulence.

For example, during the sting operation, the police also netted a 27-year-old James Mwaniki, who, according to police documents, is a computer programmer who creates the software used by Savings and Cooperative Societies (Saccos). However, he leaves “backdoor” within the software which he uses to gain illegal access in the future.

Mutuku is one of 20 individuals who graduated with a Bachelor of Information Systems from the University of Nairobi in 2012. He had a Second Class Honours (Upper Division), just a rung below the highest accolade.

There has been a heated debate on whether people like Mutuku can be co-opted into such institutions as the National Intelligence Service (NIS), but the worry is whether they can be tamed.

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