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.

Adrian's parents, Mary Atwood and Mario Lamo, have never been quoted in media reports about their son, but they agree to respond in writing to some of my questions. ("As long as they don't show you any baby pictures," Adrian grumbles.) I ask them several: What was he like as a kid? Are you proud of what he does? Do you ever just wish he'd get a "normal" job? What's the source of his unique outlook on life? Mario and Mary, whom Adrian refers to as former "young radical types," avoid answering most of the questions directly, but they do respond with a few warm paragraphs about their son.

"Since he was a baby, he had an outstanding intelligence and verbal ability," they write. "By the time he was three, he was already completely bilingual (English/Spanish). He easily learned to read at home and always loved books. As a child, he wasn't the type that tinkered with gadgets, although he did begin playing with Lego's at a very young age. ... When he was 6 years old, he received his first computer, a Commodore 64, from his grandmother, and soon mastered its use."

Indeed, it was this Commodore -- the first personal computer for so many American families in the 1980s -- that sparked Lamo's interest in virtual trespassing.

"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."

He was playing a text-based adventure game, in the ancient era before full-color graphics, and became "intensely frustrated" because he couldn't get past a certain point. "I neglected to pick up the pebble-of-something, so consequently I couldn't get through the so-and-so," Lamo recalls with a grimace. "After days of trying to get through, I said, 'Fuck this,' and I picked up the Commodore's manual and read about the list command, which shows the program code. I rewrote that particular part to let me through, and that was that." He shrugs. "Really, everything since then has been larger versions of that, being unwilling to accept reality as it's presented to me, the idea that this is denied to me, and there's no way around it."

He pauses. "There's always a way around it."

After his parents moved to Sacramento, Lamo began drifting around the city, working at a few nonprofits, doing some security work for Levi Strauss. He lived in a furnished apartment for a while, although when he moved back out, plastic sheets still covered most of the furniture. "I never made a conscious decision to start bouncing around," he says. "I just wasn't interested in finding an apartment in the Bay Area during the dot-comness."

He discovered he could live on about $50 a week, plus or minus the occasional check from his parents or gift card from a sympathetic friend, and got what little income he needed through an odd bit of freelance computer work. He has even been an assistant to a private investigator. His lifestyle, needless to say, made it difficult to apply for, much less hold, a regular job, and he wasn't willing to abandon his wayfaring ways. He had begun hacking in high school -- where he got thrown out of the only computer class he ever took (to this day, his computer skills remain entirely self-taught) -- and decided to devote himself to exploring both the real and virtual worlds. "I'm just as likely to be wandering around an abandoned building or crawling through a storm drain as I am to be poking around something online," Lamo says. "And I think both of them are equally valid. I think me getting stuck in a storm drain in New Jersey is every bit as important as breaking into the New York Times."

His parents, for their part, say they are pleased that Adrian has found an application for his unique talents; they don't discuss with me any concerns they might have about their son landing in prison. "We have always encouraged Adrian to be a critical thinker," they write, "and are proud of his intellect, and that he applies his skills to what he likes most, computer security."

Besides, they probably couldn't convince Lamo to change his line of work if they tried. "This is what I'm here to do," Lamo says, his long, slender fingers still gliding across his keyboard in the Sacramento coffee shop, now suffused in a late-afternoon glow that lends a bit more radiance to the hacker's near-translucent skin tone. "I think everything we do has ripples beyond what we see, even if the only thing that sees the ripples is the universe itself. I just have a real strong feeling that this is what I'm born for, and what I'm doing isn't wasted. I just feel compelled to explore."

A few minutes later, a guy with a crew cut and a thick build enters the coffee shop; Lamo stops talking, shuts his laptop, and follows the guy with his eyes. "There is an FBI office in that building over there," Lamo says, motioning out the window. "It's not in the building directory, but it's there, on the top floor."


With the kind of access Adrian Lamo stumbled across in 2001, almost by accident, any employee at WorldCom could have turned off the internal computer network for Bank of America.

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