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Penitent Romanian hacker aims to protect world's ATMs

A man uses a traditional automated teller machine (ATM) in Bucharest May 17, 2013. REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel
A man uses a traditional automated teller machine (ATM) in Bucharest May 17, 2013. REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel

By Radu Marinas

VASLUI, Romania (Reuters) - Valentin Boanta, sitting in his jail cell, proudly explains the device he has invented which, he says, could make the world's ATMs impregnable even to tech-savvy criminals like himself.

Boanta, 33, is six months into a five-year sentence for supplying gadgets an organized crime gang used to conceal ATM skimmers, which can copy data from an unsuspecting ATM user's card so a clone can be created.

He said he had started to make the devices for the sheer excitement of it and denies ever planning to use them himself, saying he only sold them to others.

Boanta says his arrest in 2009 and trial brought contrition, as he realized the impact of his actions and felt an urge to make amends. It also brought the former industrial design student a flash of technical inspiration.

"When I got caught I became happy. This liberation opened the way to working for the good side," Boanta said.

"Crime was like a drug for me. After I was caught, I was happy I escaped from this adrenaline addiction," he said. "So that the other part, in which I started to develop security solutions, started to emerge."

It was during his trial that he got down to work. The stage for Boanta's product pitch these days is the book-lined cell in the northeastern Romanian town of Vaslui he shares with five pickpockets and burglars.

"All ATMs have ageing designs so they are prone to vulnerability, they are a very weak side of the banking industry," he said.

"Every ATM can be penetrated through a skimming crime. My security solution, SRS, makes an ATM unbreachable."

Boanta says his "Secure Revolving System-SRS" can be installed in any ATM. It allows the bank card to be inserted longer side first and then rotates it to prevent skimmers being able to lock on to the magnetic data strip. The system returns the card to its user with a reverse rotation.

Outwardly it is a trapezoidal metallic box around 6 inches long with the card slot in the middle.

The SRS, funded and developed by a technology firm near Bucharest called MB Telecom, is patented and won an award this year at the International Exhibition of Inventions in Geneva. The inventor and company are not yet saying how much it will cost, but insist it will be available soon.

"He fully deserves such recognition," said SRS co-inventor and MB Telecom president Mircea Tudor. "He's taking part in improving Romania's image abroad and he'll surely join our team when released."

Romania has a deep well of technical expertise stemming from the time of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who backed computer research and technical education.

Digital piracy flourished after his violent overthrow in 1989, as people who could not afford proprietary products bought cheap copies instead.

Romanian hackers stole about $1 billion from U.S. accounts in 2012, according to the U.S. embassy in Bucharest. A report by Verizon said Romania was the world's second-biggest hacking centre after China. The FBI has even set up an office in Romania and helped to train specialist police agents.

(Additional reporting by Ioana Patran in Bucharest; Editing by Andrew Roche and Louise Ireland)

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