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.

"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."

So why do it? That's what I'm dying to ask him, and because San Francisco is one of the few cities Lamo comes close to calling home (his parents live outside Sacramento), he generally spends some portion of his winter and spring in the Bay Area. But I'm not at all surprised to hear, when I call him up, that he's still on the road. In fact, as we chat, Lamo is walking 20 minutes to the nearest wireless Internet connection because, alas, the glue that binds his modem has melted from the heat of his laptop. "It's like I've always said, "If everyone had to walk 20 minutes to find an Internet connection, content on the Web would be so much better,'" Lamo jokes through the static of a fading cell-phone signal.

"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."

We agree to postpone our chat again, until he's a bit more settled. "Stay out of trouble," he says before signing off. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

Adrian Lamo doesn't know if the Pacific Bell Network Operations Center has moved out of a particular building on Second Street, but the last time he checked, the combination for the center's electronic door lock was still 55755.

After more than a year, I finally meet Lamo face to face on Presidents Day. He's staying outside Sacramento, and he agrees to hop on the bus and meet me at a coffee shop near the capital, if I'm willing to make the drive out from San Francisco. It's a hazy, chilled afternoon -- Lamo describes himself as "nocturnal," and you can't expect to catch him before 2 or 3 p.m. -- and the dusty, leaf-blown streets surrounding the Greyhound terminal downtown are largely deserted. Lamo shows up a half-hour late; he missed his scheduled bus, he explains, because he forgot his cell phone and had to retrieve it. He's wearing a black buttoned shirt, khaki pants, and sturdy brown boots, and his gaze is both intense and friendly, although he never, ever, asks questions and doesn't answer all that are posed to him. Within minutes, he's tapping away at a black laptop, signing on (somehow) to a wireless connection. "I couldn't find any immediate reference to Matt Palmquist in the San Francisco Bay Area outside of articles," Lamo says, "so ..." He turns his screen so I can take a peek at some of the, ahem, research he's turned up. "I'm happy to report," he says cheerfully, "that your account is in good standing."

Although he conducted much of the work behind his most famous hacks at different Kinko's copy shops throughout downtown San Francisco, Lamo now prefers a wireless connection, so he can go online outdoors, on the steps of buildings, whenever the mood strikes him. Some bums in Philadelphia, he says, know him as Hackin' Man. "There's nothing like having the guy who was bellowing about Jesus at the top of his lungs five minutes ago check his Hotmail account from your Palm Top," Lamo says with a grin, sipping from a cup of coffee. "I live for unusual situations, improbable things that wouldn't happen to anyone else."

He's lived through plenty of those: His parents, who work in video production and as English-Spanish translators, moved around a lot when Lamo was a kid. He was born in Boston, and he spent much of his early life in Massachusetts and the Washington, D.C., area. "I like to say I was raised by a band of wandering gypsies, but that just wouldn't be factual," says Lamo. "My upbringing was not transient in that sense. We had a roof over our heads -- I was always cared for well." The family spent a few years in Lamo's father's native Colombia, then returned to the United States when Lamo's younger brother was born prematurely and needed medical attention here. His parents settled in the Bay Area in time for Adrian to start high school; he never finished. Following three unsuccessful stints at San Francisco schools (where, to no one's great surprise, he had some problems with authority), Lamo opted to get a GED instead. By this time he was 17, his parents had moved to Sacramento, and he'd decided to remain behind on the streets of San Francisco.

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