He is, as described in a profile at ProPublica, "like a real-life version of Clark Kent or Peter Parker." But 27-year-old Michael Gillespie doesn't battle villains of the usual sort: He has turned into a "crime-fighting superhero"—one recognized by the FBI—in the field of ransomware. That would be the growing category of cybercrime in which hackers hijack information and data from individuals or cities and demand payment before releasing it. Gillespie has become a renowned expert in the field, spending his spare time cracking ransomware and providing help to victims free of charge through tools on the websites Bleeping Computer and ID Ransomware. The story details Gillespie's efforts on that front—of 800 known types of ransomware, he has conquered 100, often from his couch—but it also notes the unexpected personal side of the story.
Gillespie himself lives "paycheck to paycheck" as he works at the Nerds on Call computer repair store in Normal, Illinois. In fact, he and his wife are "overwhelmed by debt," but the modest Gillespie refuses to profit from his expertise. For example, one woman he helped had lost photos of her late son, a military vet. "I couldn't charge for that," he says. And yet, Gillespie is highly sought as a wiz in the field of ransomware, so much so that the FBI reached out to him and ended up giving him a community leadership award in 2017. When his mother sent out a text, family members were "like: ‘What? What? Our Michael?'" she recalls. Adds a high school teacher, who knew Gillespie when he was an often-mocked student: “It kind of gives me goosebumps. He’s sitting here doing all this for free.” Click to read the full story. (Read more ransomware stories.)