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.

"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."


"Some days I have time to do things," says Lamo. 
"Other days are just a series of efforts to find out 
where I'm going to sleep that night."
Paolo Vescia
"Some days I have time to do things," says Lamo. "Other days are just a series of efforts to find out where I'm going to sleep that night."
Standing outside a Greyhound terminal with his Palm 
Top, Lamo says he always drifts back to San 
Francisco because the city is "big enough to wander in 
but small enough to not be impersonal."
Paolo Vescia
Standing outside a Greyhound terminal with his Palm Top, Lamo says he always drifts back to San Francisco because the city is "big enough to wander in but small enough to not be impersonal."

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 Timesand 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.)

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