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An Illinois Superhero You’ve Never Heard Of

Michael Gillespie is one of the world’s leading cybercrime fighters, and you’d never know it.

Benjamin Marra for ProPublica

There’s a superhero among us here in Illinois. His name is Michael Gillespie. He’s 27 years old. He and his wife have eight cats and he keeps framed photos of them on his desk in the back of Nerds on Call, the computer repair store where he works in Normal. But that’s not the superhero part.

Gillespie has become “one of the world’s leading conquerors of an especially common and virulent cybercrime: ransomware,” wrote my ProPublica colleague Renee Dudley in a fascinating article published this week. Dudley profiles Gillespie — who has gotten little public praise, compensation or reward for his off-hours work — as part of her ongoing series about ransomware, a crime in which an individual or group hacks into a computer system, paralyzes it and demands ransom in return for enabling victims to retrieve their files. Millions of ransomware attacks occur each year, Dudley reports, and the FBI and local law enforcement have made little progress curbing them.

Benjamin Marra for ProPublica

Enter Gillespie, who went from discovering a security weakness in his school’s website as a student at Pekin Community High to becoming a go-to source for the FBI in identifying ransomware targets. What motivates him? “I guess it’s just the affinity for challenge and feeling like I am contributing to beating the bad guys,” Gillespie told Dudley. It’s a fitting response for an Illinoisan who made regular family trips as a child to pay respects to the giant Superman statue in Metropolis.

I don’t want to spoil too much of the story. You should read it yourself. But here are two more things that strike me about it:

  1. Gillespie still lives paycheck-to-paycheck. Much of his crime-fighting work has been unpaid and done in his spare time.

  2. It’s nice to read something positive about Illinois and the people who live here. How often does that happen, amiright? So make sure to give the story a read this weekend.

P.S. This week, the Illinois legislature approved a bill that would eliminate driver’s license suspensions for unpaid parking tickets. This is a pretty big deal. If you’ve been following our reporting for the past 18 months, you know that this decades-old practice of suspending licenses has hurt tens of thousands of motorists across the state. The bill now awaits Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature. Read more.

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Portrait of Logan Jaffe

Logan Jaffe

Logan Jaffe is the engagement reporter for ProPublica Illinois.

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