'Half-Life' Caught A Hacker By Inviting Him To A Job Interview
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In 2003, the most anticipated upcoming video game was Half-Life 2. It would come out the following year and be considered one of the best games ever, and now, almost 20 years later, it appears ... well, maybe even better in hindsight than it did at the time.
But while still in 2003, developer Valve had some problems. A hacker got into their system, downloaded the entire unfinished game's source code, and released it online. With a little tinkering on the source code, players were now able to run Half-Life 2, sort of. But the bigger deal was that the public got a glimpse at the game's state and realized development was like a year behind schedule.
So, big embarrassment for Valve, who now admitted the game wouldn't be ready by the promised release date. They tried to find who was responsible for the leak, and they put the FBI on the case, but the investigation went nowhere. Then the hacker went and emailed Valve director Gabe Newell personally.
The hacker was a German 20-year-old named Axel Gembe, though in the email, he just identified himself as "Da Guy." He was a fan, he said in the message, and he'd never intended to hurt the company. In fact, now that he'd proven his tech prowess, maybe Valve would realize they could use a guy like him. Gembe was perhaps influenced by all those (often exaggerated) stories of criminals who get hired as experts by big businesses or the police.
Newell said a job might be possible, and the first step would be a phone interview. And that was how he got Gembe talking to Valve employees for almost an hour, confessing in detail and on tape to the hack. Then, Valve said the next step was an in-person interview. Gembe would fly to Seattle—where the FBI would be waiting to arrest him.
In the end, that arrest didn't happen. Getting him a visa was complicated, and in the meantime, German police (in contact with the FBI) jumped the gun and arrested Gembe themselves. They wrongly suspected he may be connected to a different hack, and when they sorted out what he did, they settled for two years' probation. As for Valve, they shifted to selling games more than making them and are now worth some $12 billion, so they weren't exactly ruined by the misadventure.
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Top image: Valve