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A Duty to Hack 

Adrian Lamo, the 22-year-old "homeless hacker" famous for raiding New York Times computers, pursues his vision of public service by cracking another major corporate network. It's a crime, of course. It's also what he was born to do.

Wednesday, Apr 16 2003
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"Tell me the truth," says Adrian Lamo, ducking into a public restroom in the Embarcadero Center on a chilly March evening. "I look like death, don't I?"

Well, he doesn't look good. Lamo, who turned 22 a few days ago, didn't get any sleep last night; he says he was "in transit," a fact to which his wrinkled cargo pants and rumpled brown jacket can plainly attest. His shoulders, as slight and bony as the rest of his frame, sag when he peers at his reflection in the scuffed mirror. "Yep," Lamo sighs, dropping his frayed backpack on the sink and turning on the faucet. "I look like death." Dark circles bloom below his warm hazel eyes, his lids droop, and whenever he isn't blinking, which isn't often, his pupils swim beneath a glassy sheen. Black and green spots mottle his yellow teeth; dirt crusts the edges of his ears. As he splashes water through his cropped brown hair, Lamo watches some of the color seep back into his face, whose angelic features appear pallid and ghostly at the best of times. "I'm feeling faint," he says, his dry, nasal voice stumbling over a mild stammer, his face rippling from the occasional tic. Ever since an amphetamine overdose last year, Lamo says, he's apt to start convulsing if he goes too long without food or sleep. "I think I should stop by Carl's Jr. and get something to eat."

On his way out of the bathroom, Lamo nods his head at a nearby door, unmarked and anonymous. "Most of the telephone switches for the Embarcadero are in there," he says, a glint returning to his eye, the merest smile spreading across his cracked, thin lips. Then his cell phone peals, and it takes Lamo a few heartbeats to identify the number of the incoming call. "My attorney," he sighs, before answering his phone in the kind of crisp, authoritative monotone you'd expect from one of the most celebrated and controversial hackers in the world: "Lamo here."


If you type the address www.sfweekly.com/Examples/FileLibrary/Files/y0.txt into your Internet browser, you'll see the following message, in plain black text on a white background: "Confidential to Matt Palmquist: Sorry I never really got back to you when you emailed. Give me a ring! -- Adrian Lamo."


Reaching Adrian Lamo is not particularly difficult. His cell phone number is 505-HACK. ("Everyone assumes there was some wrongdoing involved," he says of obtaining the number, "but like with so many things, all you have to do is ask.") His e-mail address is adrian@adrian.org, which you can locate with ease on Lamo's very own Web site (http://adrian.adrian.org). He admits he's not much at Web design, and his home page, whose header says "Faith manages," is certainly stark: Other than a blurred, pixelated image of Lamo in the upper right-hand corner, the only thing to look at is a verse, pointed and trenchant, from the Bob Dylan song "Idiot Wind": "People see me all the time, they just can't remember how to act/ Their minds are filled with big ideas, images, and distorted facts/ Even you, yesterday, you had to ask me where it was at/ I couldn't believe, after all these years, you didn't know me any better than that."

In other words, though it's not hard to get in touch with Lamo (pronounced Lah-mo), it's considerably harder to get to know him -- and perhaps hardest still to actually meet him. "Who is this?" he asks when I call him one day in early 2003. "Oh, I thought you were a collection agency."

We'd been exchanging e-mails and phone messages for almost a year, ever since Lamo grabbed headlines around the world by hacking into the New York Times and pilfering, among other things, Social Security numbers, editing notes, and reimbursement figures for several of the Times' more high-profile op-ed contributors, among them William F. Buckley Jr., Robert Redford, and former President Jimmy Carter. Media reports about the incident were, on the whole, brief and bemused ("All the News That's Fit to Hack," chortled the New York Post) and absent all but the most basic details about the young man who could, if he so wished, ring up Warren Beatty or Rush Limbaugh at home. The basic details: In the past few years this so-called "homeless hacker," a drifter who rides Greyhound cross-country and crashes in abandoned buildings or on friends' couches, has trolled, undetected, through the innards of corporate giants like America Online, Yahoo! (where he edited himself into news stories), the now-defunct Excite@Home, the now-bankrupt WorldCom, and, most recently, the Times. And he did all this using Internet Explorer, usually from a computer at a Kinko's. His methods are refreshingly low-tech -- he often exploits open proxy servers, which, after configuring a Web browser properly, can act as doorways between the public Internet and a corporation's private computer network -- and he always tells companies how to close the holes he's found. Lamo's willingness to help the companies he hacks is part of his charm, and also part of the reason he has so far avoided prosecution. (Drifting around the country helps, too.)

"In the computer underground, he's very well-regarded," says Ed Skoudis, a vice president at the computer security company Predictive Systems and author of the anti-intrusion book Counter-Hack. "He's sincere, passionate, smart, with a good track record. Getting in and getting out without getting busted -- wow. And the thing that stands out about Adrian is that he's very open about the fact he's breaking the law. I don't want to get into his head, but he seems to think he's OK because he follows the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. And you know what?" Skoudis gives a small chuckle. "Maybe there is some validity in the way Adrian does his thing, because his targets don't seem to disagree."

That could change soon, however, and Lamo knows it. As it happens, one of the reasons I have such a hard time getting into Lamo's head, or even getting him on the phone, is because he's been preparing to announce, in a few days, weeks, or months -- whenever he decides the time is right -- his biggest hack yet. On the record, he defines his target as a "critical-infrastructure-related company"; off the record, he exhibits ample evidence of his repeated incursions into the corporation's internal system -- incursions that are almost bound to be extremely embarrassing to the firm. He admits giving considerable thought to the company's reputation for aggressively pursuing hackers, and has been lining up fallback plans -- asylum in a foreign country, hiding in the Deep South -- in case the company lives up to its reputation. "In terms of my personal sense of the intrusion and what it affects, I see this as more epic than anything I've worked on in the past," Lamo says, his clipped, halting words staggering out like text across a screen. "There's a sense of rightness about it. I believe it's broader in scope, but it also has more potential to go terribly south."

About The Author

Matt Palmquist

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