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Losing His Religion: Techfocus Interviews Hacker Adrian Lamo
The companies he broke into reads like a Forbes ranking list.  Yahoo!  Excite@Home.  MCI WorldCom.  Microsoft.  SBC Ameritech.  Cingular. 

He got away with it by notifying those companies of the weaknesses, and in some cases helped fix them, for free.

Then he 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 charges.

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 interview.

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?

"That’d depend on how you define started, I guess.  My first exposure to computers was my Dad’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 – 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 didn’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 there’s never been that much of a differentiation, in the sense that what I do is less about a particular methodology of technology that’s applicable to some technology but not applicable to others.  And more about seeing things differently – 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?

"I’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 – in the sense that if there’s anything that I’ve done, it’s… occupied a space in our world that previously was not occupied.  And if there’s anything that I can say to anybody that is considering starting out on their own, it’s to do something that nobody before them has done.  And as such, if I was to really try to unduly influence anybody’s path, even by working with them, I’d think that I’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 “schoolsâ€� or any places to become a “pro 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 – that’s a hack."

What was your favorite city in terms of your travels?

"I don’t think I have one particular favorite.  I have strong affinities to DC, Philadelphia, San Francisco and probably Sacramento, as well as Pittsburgh."

You’ve been referred to as the “homeless hacker,â€� or “helpful hacker.â€�  What started you on the road?  Did you have to leave your home against your will – did your parents kick you out or was it something you chose to do?

"No, my parents have always been very good to me.  They’ve always been there for me, no matter what, and they’re really great people.  When I was seventeen or so, they moved to Sacramento."

Did you like her?  Was she a good mom?

"Yeah, she’s a great mom.  How many moms would stand on the doorstep of a home and tell the FBI “thou shalt not pass,â€� essentially?"

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 you’re moving past now?

"The family’s in some hard financial straits right now.  In many ways I think they don’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 don’t really understand, and it seemed to be much closer to being about religion for me."

A religion?

"Yes."

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?

"I’d be a fool to say that it didn’t concern me, and I don’t believe that we don’t really know what we can handle until such a time that we’re faced with it.  It’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 won’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 wouldn’t let me take my meds – they wouldn’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, “We need inmates for a prison movie,â€� and that’s what you’d have got.  It would have been easy  to be a scared white boy in the corner who didn’t talk to anybody, but I found that I’d be skipping a chance to be engaged, to talk about their problems that brought them there – 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 it."

"I certainly don’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 I’m in the right place at the right time – it sees me through many moments that otherwise be dark and traumatic.  And in that vein I’ve found that… 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 about… 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 aren’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 – certainly if they happen, they have their place.  They’re brought into the right place for the right function in the universe, just like anything else.  But many times, the things that we’ve wished for ourselves, once they happen they don’t turn out to be all that hot – whereas the things that have happened to me while I was making other plans… are the ones that have been ultimately the most valuable to me."

In terms of your life and everything you’ve done on the road – 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-mouth… from one friend to another, “Hey, he’s going to be here?â€�

"Frequently it’s word-of-mouth.  I’ll let somebody know I’ll be in town and I’ll start getting phone calls.  But more often it’s really just showing up somewhere and going on walkabout, and there’ll be a rightness about people when I meet them.  And sometimes I won’t necessarily see the direct benefit, but I’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 – it’s not like a Western Union Money Transfer, it’s Western Union Telegraph, back when that’s what Western Union was.  I’m sitting there, I’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 – because it’s been some time since he’s had any, and he’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 can’t strictly point at anything since that has been colored by that or any particular way that that’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 I’ve ever spared when somebody asked me for money to buy cigarettes, incidentally."

One of the things we’ve talked about is getting in a mind-frame or mindset when you’re getting to work, when you’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 you’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.  It’s more often that I’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.  I’ll follow it, and it will take me somewhere… 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.



By: Bill Royle on 09 Apr 2004 - 04:04
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