companies he broke into reads like a Forbes ranking list. Yahoo!
Excite@Home. MCI WorldCom. Microsoft. SBC Ameritech.
He got away with it by notifying those companies of the weaknesses, and in
some cases helped fix them, for free.
set his sights on the New York Times. They were less forgiving.
Today, April 8th, Adrian Lamo will be sentenced - having plead guilty.
I first worked to get an
interview with Adrian Lamo in July, 2003. Having compromised the networks
of some of the most influential companies in the world was not incredibly
unusual, but the manner in which it was done was intriguing. Adrian Lamo
has been termed the "homeless
hacker," the "helpful
hacker" and numerous other nicknames - because instead of disappearing into
the ether, he would make the company aware of the flaw he had exploited, and in
some cases would advise them on how to resolve it. Based on that approach,
Lamo was fortunate to have dealt with companies that didn't choose to press
Then, during an interview
with SecurityFocus (not affiliated with Techfocus), he admitted to having broken
into the NY Times network. The interviewer contacted the New York Times in
a request for comment. Shortly thereafter, the FBI started an
investigation. He was ultimately arrested in September for the penetration
of the New York Times network, and for using their resources. Today he has
pleaded guilty to breaking into their network, and for conducting unauthorized
searches on Lexis/Nexis - all on the Grey Lady's tab. You can read the
original criminal complaint here.
Lamo had another
distinction from many hackers - he did so while homeless. While his family
was willing to house him, he set off on his own, traveling from place to place
via Greyhound. Occasionally he slept on the couches of people he knew in
different cities, at other times he would sleep in abandoned buildings or
anywhere feasible. All the while, he traversed networks using a battered
laptop with a wireless network card.
Adrian Lamo is most
assuredly unique. A month after his arrest, I received an email from him
asking how the weather was. A bit puzzled, I contacted a mutual
acquaintance to verify that it was Adrian. Indeed it was, so we met
the next weekend near his home to discuss his background, and the serious
charges he faced.
This was no ordinary
interview. Not only had Lamo not given any interviews since the arrest,
but the FBI had been exerting tremendous pressure on journalists that had spoken
with Lamo, demanding that they turn over all notes and correspondence with him.
It was only after a strong outcry from the journalistic community and their
attorneys that the FBI grudgingly relaxed their demands, but there was little
solace in that. As such, there was nothing written down - just a digital
voice recorder with a limited battery. Upon the conclusion of the
interview, the recording was transcribed to the PC, then sent to an offshore
server outside of my control, in the event that an order was made to surrender it.
The digital recording was destroyed.
We hope you enjoy the
Update: Sentencing has been delayed until June. Also, to clear up one misconception: there have been other interviews since his arrest. At the time of the interview, however, he had not spoken out since the arrest.
When did you get started getting interested in security online?
"Thatâ€™d depend on how you define
started, I guess. My first exposure to computers was my Dadâ€™s Commodore 64
when I was six or seven, and as you may have read somewhere, I was interested in
making things work differently than the way they were intended â€“ loading, then
inputting it and using the list command to see all of the code contained within
it to see what the hell I was supposed to do with this blind corner that didnâ€™t
seem to go anywhere."
What kind of games?
"Text-based adventure, like Zork-style."
What moved you to move from disk-based security to
a larger scale type of interest?
"To me thereâ€™s never been that much of a
differentiation, in the sense that what I do is less about a particular
methodology of technology thatâ€™s applicable to some technology but not
applicable to others. And more about seeing things differently â€“ seeing
things that people see everyday, but seeing them in a way that they never saw,
that people who created them never intended them to be seen. To see them,
to see what is around them and make them more as the sum of their parts and in
doing so cause them to operate in a way that was never intended, expected or
even thought possible."
Have you always done this type of thing alone, or do
you prefer doing it in a team of other people?
|"Iâ€™ve always worked alone pretty much. I will
occasionally give pointers, but I very much believe that nobody should
look at me as an example to be followed â€“ in the sense that if thereâ€™s
anything that Iâ€™ve done, itâ€™sâ€¦ occupied a space in our world that
previously was not occupied. And if thereâ€™s anything that I can say to
anybody that is considering starting out on their own, itâ€™s to do
something that nobody before them has done. And as such, if I was to
really try to unduly influence anybodyâ€™s path, even by working with them,
Iâ€™d think that Iâ€™d be being untrue to the nature of what I do."
There was a question on the site from someone asking
if there were any â€œschoolsâ€� or any places to become a â€œpro hacker.â€� Do you have
any suggestions as to where people could go or what you suggest for people who
were interested in being an enthusiast?
"The mean streets of Washington D.C. on two dollars a day.
Surviving on that â€“ thatâ€™s a hack."
What was your favorite city in terms of your travels?
"I donâ€™t think I have one particular favorite. I have
strong affinities to DC, Philadelphia, San Francisco and probably Sacramento, as
well as Pittsburgh."
Youâ€™ve been referred to as the â€œhomeless hacker,â€� or
â€œhelpful hacker.â€� What started you on the road? Did you have to leave your
home against your will â€“ did your parents kick you out or was it something you
chose to do?
"No, my parents have always been very good to me. Theyâ€™ve
always been there for me, no matter what, and theyâ€™re really great people. When
I was seventeen or so, they moved to Sacramento."
Did you like her? Was she a good mom?
"Yeah, sheâ€™s a great mom. How many moms would stand
on the doorstep of a home and tell the FBI â€œthou shalt not pass,â€�
She had said that she wished that you would do
something something that everyone would see as positive. Is there any sort of
discontent between your family and you when it comes to this field, or is it
something youâ€™re moving past now?
"The familyâ€™s in some hard financial straits right now. In
many ways I think they donâ€™t see what I do as I see it, and certainly not be
involved in that respect. They, I believe, view it (computing) more as a hobby and donâ€™t
really understand, and it seemed to be much closer to being about religion for
You were saying that your Dad stays up late at night,
or wakes up in the middle of the night, that sort of thing. What kinds of
things does he worry about, from what you can see?
"Everything. The mortgage, my brother, the possibility of
jailtime for me. Whether or not my attorney can competently represent me."
Does the prospect of jail concern you, or is it
something you think you can handle?
"Iâ€™d be a fool to say that it didnâ€™t concern me, and I donâ€™t
believe that we donâ€™t really know what we can handle until such a time that
weâ€™re faced with it. Itâ€™s easy to lead armchair lives and engage in armchair
theorization, and I think it's really best to leave that sort of thing to SecurityFocus and Slashdot message boards. I wonâ€™t know if I can handle it
until I actually have to."
|"I will say that the one day I spent in lockup
could have been a very traumatic experience for me. I was in severe pain
from an aggravated tooth infection, and the US Marshals wouldnâ€™t let me
take my meds â€“ they wouldnâ€™t let me take pain medication or antibiotics.
And I was incarcerated with four or five other inmates who were there from
jail awaiting court appearances. The general impression was that
they were the sorts of people that, you know, you could have called
central casting saying, â€œWe need inmates for a prison movie,â€� and thatâ€™s
what youâ€™d have got. It would have been easy to be a scared
white boy in the corner who didnâ€™t talk to anybody, but I found that Iâ€™d
be skipping a chance to be engaged, to talk about their problems that
brought them there â€“ about what they wanted out of their lives, about who
they were. They really all warmed up and opened up. They were
all really good people, and like many things, that day was what I made of
"I certainly donâ€™t want to spend an extended amount of time in prison. I find
that faith in knowing that these things do happen for a reason, that Iâ€™m in the
right place at the right time â€“ it sees me through many moments that otherwise
be dark and traumatic. And in that vein Iâ€™ve found thatâ€¦ some may be slightly
more right than others in that the things that I allowed to happen to me, rather
than the things that I bring aboutâ€¦ tend to be the most valuable ones for me and
those around me.
Everything that we do is often colored by our own desires and beliefs about what
is right for us, and what situations we should find ourselves in."
So you think that sometimes the things that we wish
for arenâ€™t necessarily the things that are meant for us?
"I think that the vast majority of the time the things that
we want for ourselves, that we try to bring about for ourselves â€“ certainly if
they happen, they have their place. Theyâ€™re brought into the right place for
the right function in the universe, just like anything else. But many times,
the things that weâ€™ve wished for ourselves, once they happen they donâ€™t turn out
to be all that hot â€“ whereas the things that have happened to me while I was
making other plansâ€¦ are the ones that have been ultimately the most valuable to
In terms of your life and everything youâ€™ve done on
the road â€“ you had friends in every town pretty much. How do you arrange things
like that? Do people just come to you and offer their place, or was it kind of
(by) word-of-mouthâ€¦ from one friend to another, â€œHey, heâ€™s going to be here?â€�
"Frequently itâ€™s word-of-mouth. Iâ€™ll let somebody know Iâ€™ll
be in town and Iâ€™ll start getting phone calls. But more often itâ€™s really just
showing up somewhere and going on walkabout, and thereâ€™ll be a rightness about
people when I meet them. And sometimes I wonâ€™t necessarily see the direct
benefit, but Iâ€™ll know that intangibly the benefit is there.
One time I was sitting on the steps in front of an
abandoned Western Union Telegraph building, and â€“ itâ€™s not like a Western Union
Money Transfer, itâ€™s Western Union Telegraph, back when thatâ€™s what Western
Union was. Iâ€™m sitting there, Iâ€™m using 802.11, and this kid walked up to me
and he asks me point-blank if I can give him ten dollars to go and buy heroin
with â€“ because itâ€™s been some time since heâ€™s had any, and heâ€™s starting to feel
withdrawal. I had very little money at that point. I had to live off thirty
bucks or so, but I talked with him for a long time. There was a very
significant sense of rightness around my meeting with him, and although I canâ€™t
strictly point at anything since that has been colored by that or any particular
way that thatâ€™s impacted my life, I know with a great deal of certainty that
that was the right place at the right time for me. I ended up giving him five
bucks. Which is more than Iâ€™ve ever spared when somebody asked me for money to
buy cigarettes, incidentally."
One of the things weâ€™ve talked about is getting in a mind-frame or mindset when youâ€™re getting to work, when youâ€™re trying to make something conventional work in an unconventional way. What types of things would you do to get you in that frame of mind, or would it just come to you when
youâ€™d be working on something?
"To an extent it sort of works in the reverse from that for
me, in that I rarely sit down with a goal in mind and set about bringing it into
reality. Itâ€™s more often that Iâ€™ll sit down with no clear goal in mind, and my
attention will be caught by something that seems to be the right thing at the
right time. Iâ€™ll follow it, and it will take me somewhereâ€¦ different."
The recorder ran out of space after this
question, so the remainder of the interview was done off-record for context.
Where Adrian Lamo chooses to go
following the conclusion of his sentence is up to him. Following his
arrest, Lamo returned to school and began studying journalism as a staff writer
for the American River Current. As of April 7th, his voicemail at the paper remained active.
We appreciate his time, and wish him the
best as he rebuilds his life.