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Lamo broke the news of his intrusion into WorldCom through the Web site SecurityFocus.com, and officials at the telecom company said they appreciated Lamo's help in drawing attention to the problems with their system. (It took a weekend of Lamo's assistance to close the holes.) "All these companies I've compromised, they've never had a clue until I told them," says Lamo, who has a computer screen-shot of WorldCom's stock falling the day he disclosed his hack. "To an extent, it's because of my approach. Classic intrusion software looks for an attack -- nothing I do looks like an attack. It's the same stuff a user would do, and you can't determine what the intent of a user is."
His nomadic lifestyle is another reason he's never been caught; Lamo always works alone, and he travels without companionship. Given his admitted contempt for returning phone calls promptly -- "Some people are rudely late," Lamo says, "I try to be absurdly late" -- it's hard for him to make personal relationships last. Although he's got a lot of friends across the country, he usually leaves before those friendships bloom into something more.
"In a way, I'm sort of fated to be a bright, fast-moving object in people's lives," Lamo tells me one night. "I tend to enter abruptly, make massive change in their life, and leave just as abruptly. I keep in touch with people, but I try not to let my words be taken with inappropriate weight by people around me. I've seen the effects of people's long-term association with me, and I just feel strange about changing people's lives so drastically. You know, people who were nice suburban boys two years ago, and now their mom wonders what happened to them."
A few evenings later, I meet a friend of Adrian in downtown San Francisco. His name is Nevin Williams, and he's a 32-year-old network administrator in a red sweat shirt that says "Canada." They met through a mutual friend in the computer world, and it's a credit to both Williams and Lamo that they still talk: Williams, as it happens, was lead engineer at Excite@Home when Lamo hacked the system and added his name as a security consultant to the company directory. Williams didn't hold it against him, and Lamo has since crashed many a night at Williams' house in the suburbs. Although he cautions Lamo about the risks, Williams doesn't try to change his friend's path. "With Adrian, it's a spiritual thing. This is his religion. It's something he believes in, and he's not two-faced. This is genuine. Many people don't understand it -- I don't claim to understand it, either."
Williams shrugs. "I just request he doesn't use my networks in the process of doing whatever he's doing," he says. "And I really hope I'm not with him when the FBI or the CIA swoops in."
For the past several years, there's been a bench warrant out for Adrian Lamo in Sacramento County. He got it several years ago for riding public transportation without a ticket. "There's irony in the fact that the whole time I was doing all these crimes, they had license to take me in," Lamo says. "I hope the universe enjoys absurdity as much as I do. I suspect it does."
On a windy afternoon in Yerba Buena Gardens, Lamo and I settle in a rare patch of sun on a round stone bench. He's talking into his cell phone to Williams. "I'm sure it's not messy by my standards," Lamo assures him. "I'm used to abandoned buildings." After he hangs up the phone, Lamo sighs, and says, "I hope I don't die of asbestos poisoning a few years down the road, but if I do, it will have been worth it."
His recent birthday, I think, has caused Lamo to question his mortality. He seems on edge, and when I ask him about his impending disclosure, he says he's not dissuaded by the target company's reputation for hunting down hackers -- "Intimidation is not a substitute for security," he insists -- but admits to weighing the ramifications. At one point, he stares into the sun, his brows locked, and considers a question about how he would fare in jail.
"I don't know; I could be happy indefinitely sitting here in the sun, and this could be a prison yard if you put walls around it," he says at last. "But prison would curtail what I do, and it would be unpleasant."
So why go through with it? He gives his standard line: "This is what I do, this is the role I was born to play." And he refers, as he often does, to a quote from Frank Herbert's 1965 science-fiction epic Dune,the story of a young man who becomes a messiah. At home that night, I look up the passage: "The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. ... And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a man."