How a hacker became a shit-hot entrepreneur: the Alistair Petersen story

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Recently you may have seen massive hype and attention around a bank hacker called Alistair Peterson, mostly unknown, even in some parts of the tech world in which he operates. His blog had a few hundred hits less than a month ago, now it has over 22 000, with over 5 000 newsletter subscribers. If you still haven’t heard about him, then read on.

A Google search brings up little except his own blog and a small LinkedIn account, so the questions begs, who is he really? The thing is, due to the nature of what he’s doing, some folks don’t want him to be known.

To find out the truth, I went off to Johannesburg and met the man himself, and get some insight into him as a person, a businessman, a developer/hacker and as an entrepreneur of sorts.

Petersen started tinkering with computers, that his father (who was in the electronics industry) brought home from work, at a young age . He claims to have done his first piece of software for Nestlé at the age of 12. Various other projects have filled up his time throughout his school career until he started at Iganic (run by Jimmy Eichenberger).

During his career he has also worked at Intervate, MWeb, Microsoft, the JSE (through Accenture) and now GooZoo Reboot. At (the now closed) Iganic he worked on Sony Playstation’s website, as well as EA (Electronic Arts, then www.ea.co.za), for which they won awards. Iganic was bought out by Synergy Holdings, one of the biggest suppliers and integrators of AccPac accounting software as well as the owners of accounting.co.za (a website Petersen originally developed for them and helped establish).

He speaks fondly of an interview with Mark Shuttleworth where he was offered a job, turned it down, and then heard a few weeks later that everyone in the company received one-million Rand after Thawte sold out to Verisign.

As far back as 1999, but mainly during 2004 and 2005, he was involved in cyber-crime, creating a virus that spread itself on computers, something he is vague about now, but back then, he didn’t really think of the virus beyond a few computers he knew were infected. In fact, after sending off the trojan virus, it went on to sit within thousands of computers, which he later found out. The virus was in the form of a jit file that went through firewalls unnoticed in the form of an attached string of text at the end of any other file.

An example is a picture file, that once opened, executes the text to install the virus and then the trouble begins. Some reports he say stole up to R50-million including costs, but he mentions lower figures, stating that the higher reported amounts usually include costs to the state, not just transferred money. He also notes that he was known as the Digital Robin Hood, and would transfer large amounts of money into the bank accounts of people in poor areas in South Africa.

Nowadays, Petersen really does work for GooZoo Reboot. NuGoo, a subsidiary of GooZoo, is working on a great product for Africa is a portable lab for rural schools. Running on liquid battery power, the labs have many laptops (which charge in the lab itself). These are perfect for Africa in that they are robust, and run on organic fuel and not electricity.

Back to GooZoo Reboot, a company he started after leaving prison, hence the use of the word ‘reboot’. The main interest here is in a software product called SingleView, which literally takes one detail of a person (a cellphone number, for example) and spits out information on every single part of their life, from bank balances to every address you have ever lived at. Your credit ratings, cellphone records and much more are displayed. If you’re a criminal, you’ve got no chance. Consequently, many intelligence agencies have been in touch and are signing up, for million-dollar contracts.

GooZoo Reboot is a joint venture partner with iBurst’s subsidiary Broadlink and Dark Africa Fibre. In fact when GooZoo tackled the City of Cape Town’s BRT project (managed the project, provided the software and deployed the solution), the project required connectivity, hosting and infrastructure, and they outsourced these components to iBurst and the WBS group of companies.

Petersen also got involved in solving the Postbank heist, where burglars made off with over R40-million from South Africa’s vastly unsecured Postbank IT systems. After almost a month of trying to find any suspects, Petersen and his crew came in and found the culprits in 12 hours.

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