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Will the real Alistair Peterson please stand up?

Published by on Aug 3rd, 2012, No Comments

Not too long ago you may have seen massive hype and attention around someone 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, this is a fuller account of who he is.

In June on DSTV/MNet television, Carte Blanche had a whole session on him as a hacker and now successful businessman, and newspapers have also delved in and written about him from time to time. A Google search brings 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 Mordor (Johannesburg) and met the source, the man himself, for a lengthy interview that gave great insight into him as a person, a businessman, a developer/hacker and as an entrepreneur of sorts. Before we start, here is what the press has loosely reported so far, and a little bit of a timeline:

  • Alistair Peterson first works for companies as a developer
  • Due to work pressure, mounting costs and a divorce, he finds himself in a difficult place and hacks into South African banks, stealing millions (reports differ on the amount/s).
  • The Scorpions catch him at the airport and he accepts a plea bargain for 6 months in prison and to help them catch criminals
  • Alistair is freed and gets to work on GooZoo Reboot, a company that he has built from the ground up, previously called GooZoo Skunkworks. He creates various software and files various patents, some of which are now sought after by intelligence agencies the world over (Carte Blanche mentions the CIA).

All very “Hollywood” so far. In fact, some of the reports in some rather yellow press, such as Die Son, diverge quite a bit from others and also to what Alistair himself claims. But the truth as I found it, is that Alistair Peterson is a very calm, casual and even entertaining person. He met me at his offices in Johannesburg and we sat for a long time while talking about various topics, from family and  business to technology and his dreams for the future.

Alistair was born in humble Reiger Park, Boksburg, and went to school there. From a young age he started to tinker with computers that his dad brought home from work, as his father was involved in electronics. Alistair then grew up and finished school in 1994. He also completed his Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer (MCSD) and is currently doing a Bachelor of Law (LLB, UNISA), as he mentions that IT Law is an interesting new field.

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 and until he started at Iganic (run by Jimmy Eichenberger), and during his career he has also worked at Intervate, MWeb, Microsoft, the JSE (through Accenture) and now GooZoo Reboot. He has worked with the likes of Allen Owen, Masande Dyasi, Lekentle Mohala and Lionel Moyal.

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 Alistair 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 R1,000,000 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 say he stole up to R50million 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, Alistair really does work for GooZoo Reboot. NuGoo, a subsidiary of GooZoo, is working on a great product for Africa – 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.

The Lenovo rural school laboratory, made by NuGoo

Back to GooZoo Reboot: It’s 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.

Alistair also got involved in solving the Postbank heist, where crafty burglars made off with over R40million from South Africa’s vastly unsecured Postbank IT systems. After almost a month of trying to find any suspects, Alistair and his crew came in and found the culprits in just 12 hours.

Alistair Peterson is someone quite genuine, and in fact is clearly not used to the fact that he is achieving fame. But how can he? On the one hand, he is inundated with requests for interviews for television and radio stations, and on the other hand, intelligence agencies are telling him to say nothing. For now, any requests for interviews and the like are directed to DNA Brand Architects.

He’s a bit of a Mandela. He did dubious things, went to prison and came out a legend. And while some of the above may sound far-fetched, this is a true story about a very clever software developer, who seems to have left his criminal behaviour behind and is now working towards turning big ideas into reality. Originally posted on www.jessello.com

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