Facing the Music

The feds catch up with the "homeless hacker" -- and order him off computers

The last time we saw Adrian Lamo, he was posing against a backdrop of skyscrapers for an SF Weeklycover, illustrating a story ("A Duty to Hack," April 16) that detailed his incredible lifestyle as the so-called "homeless hacker." Over the past few years, the 22-year-old Lamo -- who rides Greyhound buses nationwide between stays in abandoned buildings or on friends' couches -- had gained a reputation in the computer underground for sneaking into the internal systems of corporate giants (including America Online, Yahoo!, and the now-bankrupt WorldCom), taking a long look at confidential information, and telling the companies how to close the holes he exploited. On this raw winter night in downtown San Francisco, his lips blue and teeth chattering after hours in the biting wind, Lamo bid farewell with his customary warning: "Don't do anything I wouldn't do," he said through a wan smile. "Stay out of trouble."

Lamo couldn't follow his own advice. Two weeks ago, FBI agents turned up at his parents' home outside Sacramento with an arrest warrant signed in New York. Lamo went into hiding for a long weekend, until a federal public defender could confirm the charges against him, which stemmed from Lamo's intrusion last year into the virtual innards of the New York Times. In pressing charges, the Timesbecame the first company that shrugged off Lamo's assistance and focused instead on his antics, which included pilfering Social Security numbers and contact information for op-ed contributors like Jimmy Carter and Warren Beatty. At 9 a.m. on Sept. 9, Lamo turned himself in.

A few hours later, U.S. marshals are leading Lamo into a Sacramento courtroom before federal Magistrate Judge Gregory Hollows, a middle-aged man with a mustache and thinning brown hair. Lamo wears handcuffs and street clothes -- a gray vest over a blue shirt and his customary cargo pants -- and he looks a lot better, despite the circumstances, than he did a few months ago. His hair is cropped and smoothed, his expression stoic, and as he settles into his chair after the briefest of glances at his mother sitting anxiously in the back of the courtroom, Lamo gives the impression he's prepared for this.

The judge reads the charges, which accuse Lamo of violating federal laws that prohibit unauthorized access to a protected computer, an offense carrying a maximum sentence of five years, and possession of stolen passwords, punishable by 10. Asked if he understands the charges, Lamo answers crisply, with no trace of nervousness: "Yes, I do."

Then come the platitudes.

"This whole business about hacking and computer crimes is getting very worrisome," Hollows says, grim-faced as he peers at Lamo over his spectacles. "I don't want Mr. Lamo having access to a computer while he's on pretrial release."

At this point, Lamo grows animated, whispering for more than a minute with his attorney, federal Deputy Public Defender Mary French. After the huddle, French cites the court's insistence that Lamo try to find work or enroll in vocational school while awaiting trial. "It's so hard to get by in today's society without a computer," French argues.

But the judge won't budge, and leaves it to his counterpart in New York to decide whether the ban on computer use will be permanent before the trial. Lamo, it seems, will be released on a $250,000 bond, secured by his parents' house, that has been negotiated between the federal public defender's office and New York prosecutors. He is to board a plane the next day for arraignment in New York, Hollows says, but it's uncertain what will happen to him after that. Indeed, the homeless hacker seems destined for an appropriately wayward trip through the judicial system: Because the judge declines to subsidize a round-trip ticket, and because Lamo's parents -- who care for a younger son with severe disabilities -- can't afford the return flight to California, the hacker might well find himself in familiar straits after his arraignment. "I don't want him to just be stranded there," French says, as if this would be a first for Lamo.

Even more curious than the confusion over who'll pay for Lamo's itinerary, however, is the itinerary itself. His first stop after he arrives in New York will be FBI headquarters. "Very odd," Hollows muses. "In my experience, it's always fraught with peril when a defendant is ordered to report to the FBI."

But this is a singular case, with a singular defendant. Lamo's arrest led to a flurry of mainstream media coverage last week, and also saw the launching of a supporters' Web site, www.freelamo.com, that could generate even more publicity for his case. At the conclusion of the Sacramento hearing, just before Lamo is released into a meeting with pretrial investigators and for a night at home with his parents, Hollows addresses the hacker directly, with the kind of quizzical frown that one comes to expect from those encountering Lamo for the first time.

"You'll be responsible for finding directions to the FBI office," Hollows says with a sigh. "I guess they'll know who you are." -- Matt Palmquist

Zero Patience

The following e-mail hit inboxes across city government recently, raising howls of indignation to which we hereby lend our voice. Why, in these financially and environmentally challenged times, should there be any "minimum" number of occupants required for a "clean" city vehicle to get a free pass on Bay Area bridges? And just how much is the city going to have to pay for vehicles that exceed this arbitrary minimum?

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