Learnt coding in Class 4, says hacker Srikrishna at centre of Bitcoin row
The man at the centre of a political battle between the Karnataka’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Opposition over an alleged multi crore bitcoin scam has claimed that he began learning coding when he was in Class 4 and was part of a group of that hacked a cryptocurrency exchange five years ago.
Srikrishna Ramesh, alias Sriki, was arrested by the Central Crime Branch (CCB) of police on November 17, 2020, and during his interrogation, CCB found that he was involved in a series of online crimes. He confessed to hacking and stealing from three Bitcoin exchanges, 14 company websites, including 10 poker websites, and a government portal.
A statement given by the hacker, which is part of the charge sheet against him and police claims was voluntary, gives a glimpse of the life of Srikrishna, who by his own account was a genius. These details are information provided by the hacker in his voluntary statement, which has not been corroborated by the police. Police are trying to verify the claims and HT cannot independently verify the them. His lawyers have opposed the claims in the charge sheet in a local Bengaluru court.
In his statement, Srikrishna claims that he started learning technical skills when he was as young as 8-year-old. The hacker claimed he began learning the programming language Java when he was in Class 4.
“In Class 4, I learned the basics of web exploitation, Java, Reverse engineering and wrote my first bot for a game called RuneScape. This was my first attempt at reverse engineering obfuscated games and binary exploitation,” he wrote in his statement to the police.
In the coming years, he joined an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel used by a group of black hat hackers (unethical hackers). According to him, he learned hacking from the members of this channel.
“Picking up skills slowly as a script kiddie, I learned the basics of databases, SQL injections, local file inclusions, remote file inclusions, remote code executions, shells, web application exploitation, and source code analysis,” the hacker wrote about his activities during school days.
Starting as a rookie in hacking, over the years he learned sophisticated knowledge in illegal hacking of websites and others. Later, Srikrishna was promoted as the moderator of the channel’s forum and an administrator of the IRC network when he was in Class 9. During this time, he began making friends in the international hacking circles, with many of them mentoring him in financial hacking.
By the time he finished schooling, he was earning hundreds of dollars every month, by hacking into an online game along with a hacker friend from Sydney. It was during this pre-university (10+2), he learned about Bitcoins. “When I learned about Bitcoins the price was around $100 (per coin),” he wrote in the statement.
Srikrishna first used bitcoins to purchase drugs from the darknet market. “Due to the pseudo-anonymous nature of bitcoin, a person by the names of ‘Ross Ulbricht’ made the first darknet market from which I initially imported drugs to India for personal consumption. This market was called Silk Road 1.0. I ordered several packages in two years which all successfully cleared customs,” he wrote.
The hacker claims that by the end of the two years of college, he was addicted to drugs and left home at the age of 17. “I ran away to the Himalayas at the age of 17 with my friend Rithvik and ended up in Badrinath. A case was registered at Siddapura police station (Missing persons) and Tilaknagar police station (By Rithvik’s mother). Eventually, due to a technical folly, the Tilaknagar Police found us at ISKCON in Mathura and brought us back to Bangalore,” wrote the hacker.
On his return, after dropping out of engineering from Bengaluru college, he joined B.Sc. in Computer Science at the Eindhoven University of Technology in Amsterdam. It was here, he learned more about Bitcoins. In Amsterdam, two of his friends started a bitcoin exchange, and working with them, he learned about bitcoin trading, which he later used for hacking into bitcoin exchanges.
Srikrishna returned to Bengaluru in 2015 and it was in 2018, he had his first brush with the law. On February 18, 2018, Shantinagar Congress MLA NA Haris’ son Nalapad was accused of brutally assaulting a man in a cafe in Bengaluru’s UB City mall. Srikrishna who was by then friends with the MLA’s son was accused number three in the case. While all other accused in the case were arrested, Srikrishna managed to evade arrest by changing cities multiple times, before he could get bail.
In his statement, Srikrishna then listed out all hacking cases that he has been part of. According to police investigating the case, he told the police about these instances as though they were big achievements of his life. “He started by talking about how he hacked his college website to give proxy attendance to his friends. He emphasised the fact that he didn’t take any money for that. He also said that he hacked several websites to get movie tickets and IPL tickets for his friends. Once again he emphasised that he didn’t take any money for that,” said a senior Bengaluru police officer who didn’t want to be named.
“Like most of the criminals he wants to be famous and he wants to be known as, in his own words, a cool hacker. The statement at one point began looking bragging. We are still unable to ascertain a lot of claims made by them, where he claims to have hacked into websites and servers. Even though he knows the consequences of admitting to hacking these sites, he can’t help himself,” the officer added.
“Bitfinex was my first big bitcoin exchange hack; the exchange was hacked twice, and I was the first person to do so,” read his description of the 2016 hacking of the Bitcoin exchange. Around 120,000 bitcoins, which was about $72 million at the time, were stolen from Bitfinex in August 2016.
“The second instance was a simple spear-phishing attack that led to two Israeli hackers working for the army getting access to the computers of one of the employees, which gave them access to the AWS cloud account,” he wrote about the hack.
It was this hacking instance that has now made Srikrishna a person of interest in the political battle between the Congress and ruling BJP. The Congress has alleged a cover-up and a link between the hacker and BJP, alleging that Bengaluru police, who had information about his involvement in December 2020, didn’t reveal this information to central enforcement agencies until April 2021.
Apart from questioning the police hiding information about Srikrishna to central agencies, the Opposition has also alleged that ₹9 crore worth of bitcoins seized from the Srikrishna following his arrest in November 2020, was not shown in the charge sheet or the evidence submitted before the court.
But for Srikrishna, his downfall didn’t begin with the hacking or his involvement in the brawl in 2018. It was his drug addiction that got him behind the bars. In November 2020, officers of the Central Crime Branch were on the lookout for drug peddlers in the city, as part of the Home Minister’s orders to crack down on the drug mafia in the city.
Based on a tip-off, police approached one Suneesh Hegde who was procuring hydro marijuana through dealers on the darknet. During the questioning Hedge admitted that it was Srikrishna who was helping him procure the drugs. Srikrishna who has been purchasing drugs from the darknet for several years had helped Hedge purchase as a favour.
A senior CCB official said that when they got the custody of Srikrishna, they didn’t know they had an infamous hacker under arrest. “It was when we were trying to find out how he was using bitcoins to buy drugs, we came to know about all the hacking cases he was part of. If it wasn’t for that drug case, we would have never found this hacker,” said the police.
Prior to his arrest, as per the statement of Robin Khandelwal, an associate of the hacker who converted the bitcoins to cash, Srikrishna used to spend most of his time in five-star hotels. According to Khandelwal, most of the money he transferred to Srikrishna was spent on hotel bills, which often ran into a few lakhs.
According to the charge sheet, he also hacked online game sites, including PokerDangal, PokerBaazi, GGpoker, PPpoker, SwC Poker, BitStarz and Spartan Poker. He used to make his friends play poker on these sites, while Srikrishna would hack the sites to see Opponent’s cards. During these hacks, he had lived in a five-star hotel in Goa for over a month, said Khandelwal in his statement.
Similarly, when he was on the run after the assault case in Bengaluru, Srikrishna spent ₹11.80 lakh on a private jet for his travel, read the statement.
But as the bitcoin scandal is becoming a political tug of war, the concerns for the hacker are increasing. In a petition filed before the court, the hacker’s father Gopal Ramesh has claimed that his son was drugged by police while he was in custody.
HT accessed the petition filed by the Srikrishna’s father, which read: “…application was filed by the petitioner being the father of the accused that he has credible and reliable information that the respondents (police) at the behest and unlawful orders have been administering the Petitioner’s son Srikrishna with excessive mind-altering drugs specifically Alprazolam which is a prohibited drug and therefore, sought cognizance be taken against all officials who have committed various offenses under the NDPS Act as also under the IPC.”
He further claimed that even though the magistrate ordered a scientific examination of the hacker’s blood and urine samples, police conducted a stomach wash done on him, defying the order. The opposition also produced a document from Victoria Medical College that read that stomach cleaning performed “to rule out poisoning”.