Ex-Hacker Adrian Lamo Institutionalized for Asperger’s
Last month Adrian Lamo, a man once hunted by the FBI, did something contrary to his nature. He picked up a payphone outside a Northern California supermarket and called the cops.
Someone had grabbed Lamo’s backpack containing the prescription anti-depressants he’d been on since 2004, the year he pleaded guilty to hacking The New York Times. He wanted his medication back. But when the police arrived at the Safeway parking lot it was Lamo, not the missing backpack, that interested them. Something about his halting, monotone speech, perhaps slowed by his medication, got the officers’ attention.
An ambulance arrived. “After a few moments of conversation, they just kind of exchanged a look and told me to get on the stretcher,” says Lamo.
Thus began Lamo’s journey through California’s mental health system — and self discovery. He was transported to a local emergency room and put under guard, and then transferred to the Woodland Memorial Hospital near Sacramento, where he was placed on a 72-hour involuntary psychiatric hold under a state law allowing the temporary forced hospitalization of those judged dangerous or unable to care for themselves. As the staff evaluated him and adjusted his medication, a judicial officer extended his stay, and three days became nine.
When Lamo was finally discharged to his parents’ house on May 7, he left the hospital with a new diagnosis. At 29 years old Lamo learned he has Asperger’s Disorder.
“It’s kind of a surprise that it took me until almost 30 to find I had a particular disorder and get proper treatment for it,” Lamo says.
Sometimes called the “geek syndrome,” Asperger’s is a mild form of autism that makes social interactions difficult, and can lead to obsessive, highly focused behavior.
There are no reliable figures on how many people have Asperger’s, but anecdotally a lot of them are drawn into the computer field, particularly the logic-heavy world of coding. BitTorrent creator Bram Cohen has diagnosed himself with the disorder, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates is frequently speculated to have it.
Also anecdotally, people with Asperger’s are frequently diagnosed in adulthood, even into their 50s, according to the U.S. Autism and Asperger’s Association. As in Lamo’s case, the diagnosis often follows a run-in with the police, says Dennis Debbaudt, an independent consultant who trains law enforcement agencies on interacting with people on the autistic spectrum.
“They may be living a life where people think they’re odd, they’re unusual, they’re eccentric, whatever you want to call it,” says Debbaudt. “But nobody’s thinking, ‘Oh, by the way, I think they have Asperger’s Syndrome.’ It’s not something that would pop into the mind of the general person or law enforcement. It’s just, ‘There’s something different here. This person communicates different. His body language is different.’”
The Asperger’s diagnosis, though, didn’t come as a complete surprise to Lamo or his family — the therapist Lamo had been seeing for depression had already suggested he visit a specialist to be evaluated for Asperger’s. Now, the new medication prescribed in Woodland has made a positive change in his interactions with other people.
“Talking to strangers was really hard for me,” Lamo says. “I had to script it all in my head and act out normal behaviors in a very conscious way. Essentially, I had to learn how human beings act.”
“Now I no longer feel there’s a surface tension that I have to break through when I talk to somebody, like I’m a fish going after a particularly tasty bug and I have to break through the water to get it,” he continues. “I just talk to somebody, like it’s a natural function.”
To a reporter who’s been covering Lamo for a decade, the diagnosis makes a layman’s instant, intuitive sense.
Lamo made his mark in the early 2000s with a string of brazen but mostly harmless hacks against large companies, conducted out in the open and with a striking naiveté as to the inevitable consequences for himself. In 2001, when he was 20, Lamo snuck into an unprotected content-management tool at Yahoo’s news site to tinker with a Reuters story, adding a made-up quote by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Lamo’s other targets included WorldCom, Excite@Home and Microsoft; he alerted the press to each intrusion, and sometimes worked with the hacked company to close the security holes he’d exploited. Unemployed at the time, and prone to wander the country by Greyhound, he was given the appellation “the Homeless Hacker” by the media.
His hacking career ended around 2002, after Lamo penetrated the internal network of The New York Times and added himself to the paper’s database of op-ed contributors, putting himself in the virtual company of William F. Buckley Jr. and Jimmy Carter. The Times didn’t think it was funny, and the FBI and federal prosecutors in New York charged Lamo under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. He pleaded guilty in 2004, and was sentenced to six months of house arrest at his parents’ home in Carmichael, California, followed by two years of probation.
It was around that time that Lamo fell into a deep depression that has dogged him until last month. “I’d associated his depression with what had happened with the FBI,” says his father, Mario Lamo, who describes his son as having had a normal childhood. “As a child he would give speeches to people and entertain visitors and talk about a thousand things, and we didn’t notice anything irregular,” he says.
But as a teenager, Lamo began struggling in social situations. Since his discharge from Woodland, “I’ve noticed an incredible difference,” says the senior Lamo.
Lamo joins a growing list of computer intruders who’ve been diagnosed with Asperger’s, though usually the diagnosis comes when the hacker faces the criminal justice system for the first time, rather than six years later.
In December, a defense psychiatrist concluded that credit card thief Albert Gonzalez exhibited behavior consistent with Asperger’s. A government-appointed psychiatrist rejected the claim, and Gonzalez got 20 years. Earlier, in August, a Los Angeles computer intruder involved in a lucrative fraud scheme received a slightly reduced sentence because of his Asperger’s, which his lawyer argued made him vulnerable to manipulation by the ringleader in the scheme.
In the most high-profile case, the British hacker Gary McKinnon was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 42, shortly after losing a legal challenge to an extradition order that would have sent him to America to face charges of sabotaging unclassified Pentagon computers. The diagnosis opened new legal avenues for McKinnon, who now appears likely to avoid extradition.
For his part, Lamo thinks Asperger’s might explain his knack for slipping into corporate networks — he usually operated with little more than a web browser and a lot of hunch work. “I have always maintained that what I did isn’t necessarily technical, it’s about seeing things differently,” he says. “So if my brain is wired differently, that makes sense.”
But he scoffs at the notion that Asperger’s should mitigate the consequences of illegal behavior. Asperger’s might help explain his success in hacking, but not his willingness to do it, he says. “If, in fact, the diagnosis is accurate, it had zip to do with my actions at that time.”
While Lamo thinks he shouldn’t have been confined against his will, he says most of the hospital staff were well-intentioned and professional, and he’s been happier since the incident. “Many of them were beautiful people who had a great deal of genuine concern for their patients, and I feel that I benefited from their attention,” he says.
He tried to help them, as well. After the staff discovered his hacking past, they began seeking him out for computer advice. “The questions changed from, ‘Do you know where you are? What’s today’s date?,’ to, ‘Hey, I have a Mac.”
“They also untaped the login and password from the state mental health-database terminal at a nurse’s station,” he adds.
Today, he says, “I feel less sedated, more social, and I feel better able to carry out the day-to-day functions of the average member of society.
“I still can’t say if the situation were to be repeated back at the Safeway, that they wouldn’t look at me and say, ‘Yeah, yeah, better get him in.’”
(Photos: Ariel Zambelich/Wired.com)