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The Real Reason Valve Wanted To Offer This Hacker A Job

When Axel Gembe was asked by Valve to fly to Seattle from his home in Germany to interview with the company, he thought it was a dream come true. He loved video games and "Half-Life" was his favorite. He had been eagerly awaiting the release of "Half-Life 2" and couldn't wait to learn more about it. He was also an accomplished hacker. 

When Gembe's passion for "Half-Life 2" and his hacking skills combined, he pulled off an amazing feat that would bring him to the attention of Valve CEO Gabe Newell, Valve Corporation, and even the FBI. Unfortunately for Gembe, the attention and potential job offer weren't what they seemed.

It was always a love of video games that motivated Gembe. When he first learned how to program malware, he used it to obtain CD Keys for all the games he couldn't afford. As his skills developed, he began to think bigger: What if he could get some early info on the upcoming "Half-Life 2?" And so, Gembe tried hacking into Valve's servers to see what he could find. He wasn't looking to cause harm or even to profit from it. He didn't even think he'd succeed. "I wasn't really expecting to get anywhere," Gembe would later tell Eurogamer

But he did get somewhere. He found it surprisingly easy to penetrate Valve's network and, over the course of several weeks, gained access to a wealth of information. Gembe had been looking for info on "Half-Life 2," but what he found was the entire game's source code. Here's why Valve ended up offering him a job at the company.

Valve's sting

Just a few weeks after Gembe downloaded the source code for "Half-Life 2," it was leaked on the internet. Gembe has always maintained that he didn't leak the code himself. He did make the mistake, however, of sharing information about his hack with others, seemingly motivated by pride and a desire to brag about his accomplishment. Still, the damage was done and Valve began scrambling to uncover the leak and limit the damage.

Despite the best efforts of Valve and the involvement of the FBI, it's likely that Gembe's identity would never have been discovered, as he had done an excellent job of covering his tracks. However, Gembe didn't want to remain hidden. Instead, he emailed Gabe Newell and confessed to everything. Not only did he want to apologize for the harm he had caused, he also wanted to ask for a job.

Such an audacious request may seem shocking, but Gembe thought it could work. "I was very naive back then," he told Eurogamer. He truly thought he could be forgiven because his intentions hadn't been malicious. The hack had proven his capabilities, so why not give it a shot? To his delight, Newell wrote back and asked him to take part in a phone interview. 

What Gembe didn't know was that he was never going to be receiving a job offer. The interview was the beginning of a sting operation being orchestrated by the FBI.

The Valve hacker gets busted

According to Wired, the phone interview lasted for 40 minutes. And while it included standard interview questions about skills and experience, Gembe was also asked to provide details about his hack of Valve's servers. Gembe thought he was being evaluated for a job, he was actually being led into confessing to his crimes over the phone. The FBI had everything they needed to charge him; now they just needed to get him on American soil. And so, Valve invited Gembe to come to Seattle for an in-person interview.

Gembe never made it to Seattle, however. The FBI had contacted German authorities to tell them about the case, seemingly hoping the German police could keep an eye on Gembe in the meantime. Instead, the local police decided to make the arrest themselves. 

On the morning of May 7, 2004, Gembe awoke to find police officers pointing guns at him.

The aftermath and Valve's next moves

Gembe would ultimately be charged in Germany for his crimes. As noted by Eurogamer, he should actually consider himself lucky that it turned out that way. He was sentenced to two years probation and has since turned his life around. If he had been allowed to travel to the United States, he could have faced up to 10 years in federal prison for hacking to obtain information valued at over $5,000 (per Eisner Gorin LLP). 

It's possible that German authorities made the arrest as a way of sparing Gembe a far worse punishment in a foreign country. The police chief's first words to Gembe were reportedly, "Have you any idea how lucky you are that we got to you before you on that plane?" 

Today, Gembe regrets what he did but still insists he acted without malice (per Ars Technica). He attributes his behavior to youthful foolishness and he has turned his life around, completing an apprenticeship in the years between his arrest and trial. Ironically (or perhaps appropriately), Gembe began working on database and server security. He now helps to prevent the very hacks he became famous for. 

Axel Gembe never did get that job at Valve, but he did learn a lesson and earn a happy ending.