Over the past few months, hackers have been launching prank-attacks on people’s personal devices to promote the nearly 80 million subscriber YouTube channel belonging to Felix Kjellberg, who goes by PewDiePie.
These hacks ramped up after T-Series, an Indian entertainment channel, threatened to surpass PewDiePie as the most popular YouTuber on the platform. Internet-connected printers were hacked to print out promotions for PewDiePie’s channel, the Wall Street Journal was briefly defaced to call for visitors to the page to subscribe, and most recently, thousands of Chromecasts and smart TVs were hacked to show a video of PewDiePie and urge people to subscribe.
These pranks have been spearheaded by a hacker known as HackerGiraffe, who publicly took credit for the printer hack, which went viral. As part of the rollout and aftermath of that hack, they set up a Patreon and social media accounts devoted to sharing and explaining their exploits.
They’re doing what’s considered “white hat hacking”—taking advantage of vulnerabilities and exploits without malicious intent, but to expose flaws in a system in order to have them repaired. Many white-hat hackers do it for a bug bounty; others do it for some modicum of fame or social clout. Based on HackerGiraffe’s own words, they seemed to have done it to spread awareness of the danger of internet-exposed devices, and for the love of his favorite YouTuber, PewDiePie.
But the tone of these efforts took a sharp turn Thursday, when HackerGiraffe said they were going to stop hacking, and posted a remorseful entry to Pastebin about “the endgame.” In the post, they allude to some kind of punishment or repercussions yet to come down on them and apologized to their Patreon supporters.
“I guess there is a lesson to be learned here, don't fly too close to the sun and then act like you don't know you'll get burned. Well, here I am, burned and roasted, awaiting my maybe-coming end,” HackerGiraffe wrote. “I just wanted to inform people of their vulnerable devices while supporting a YouTuber I liked. I never meant any harm, nor did I ever have any ill intentions. I'm sorry if anything I've done has made you feel under attack or threatened.”
In a livestream audio clip obtained by Motherboard, someone claiming to be HackerGiraffe said that they’ve received death threats and harassment in the last month. “It’s crazy what I have to endure day by day.” The clip was originally posted to HackerGiraffe’s now-deleted Twitter, but Motherboard has not been able to verify that the person speaking was definitely HackerGiraffe.
The person says in the clip that someone in their Discord server claimed that the FBI was building a case against HackerGiraffe for the pranks. They say that they’re not sure whether the person claiming that the FBI was watching them was trolling or serious, but it was enough to make them break. “I freaked,” they said, and destroyed the server (supposedly referring to the one running the most recent smart TV and Chromecast hack), deleted their Cloudflare, Patreon, the PayPal account linked to the Patreon, and social media accounts (Patreon confirmed to me that HackerGiraffe took the account down themselves.)
“I don’t know how a person can endure this,” they said. “Is it really worth it to go through the effort to find out what my email is and fill my email with the most horrible things? Was it really worth your time?.... You don’t know what it’s like to receive DMs threatening to kill you and your entire family until you’ve actually received it.”
But what HackerGiraffe claims to be enduring is nothing new to women, especially female journalists who have been targeted by PewDiePie’s fanbase. Because I have been critical of PewDiePie, my own inboxes are full of harassment from his fans. They have been sending hate mail for almost a year, and they’re still coming. Other journalists have written about their experiences coping with the aftermath of covering PewDiePie and YouTube culture in general. Once his self-described “army” levels its sights on you, the attacks are endless.
HackerGiraffe’s manifesto for the printer hack, which affected 500,000 private and public machines across the US, outlined their reasons for the hack:
PewDiePie, the currently most subscribed to channel on YouTube, is at stake of losing his position as the number one position by an Indian company called T-Series that simply uploads videos of Bollywood trailers and campaigns.
After launching the prank, HackerGiraffe tweeted: “Spread the word with your friends about printers and printer security! This is actually a scary matter. Will tweet everything about this entire #pewdiepie hack later to explain to everyone exactly what went down. Also @pewdiepie please notice me”
Kjellberg did notice them, and addressed the hack in a video segment:
“I love it. Please keep it up, just don’t do anything illegal, because that will look bad on me—that’s the only reason—that will look bad on PewDiePie,” he said. Kjellberg seems to worry that he’ll look bad for encouraging illegal activities, but doesn’t seem to realize that hacking people’s devices to make them do things they don’t want them to do is definitely illegal. And whether he owns up to it or not, in the eyes of people targeted by his fans’ harassment, he already looks bad.
I’ve reached out to Kjellberg’s publicist for comment on HackerGiraffe’s #CastHack and the harassment they’re experiencing, and will update if I hear back.
HackerGiraffe’s goals were, in some ways, noble. Surely, some people were made to question the safety of their IoT devices. But white hat hackers report bugs all the time, without the same media fanfare and virality that PewDiePie pranks have gotten—and without exploiting them in the wild, as a prank.
Though HackerGiraffe’s intentions were good, they weren’t spared from the hornet’s nest of YouTube fandom. PewDiePie doesn’t need his fans’ “help” in the form of hacking personal devices or harassing people online any more than he’d likely stand up for one of them in the face of endless threats.