Adrian Lamo, one of the world's most controversial hackers, slips through hidden passageways in corporate websites by day - and in abandoned buildings and cathedrals by night - and now I am hearing about it as it happens.
Lamo, the 22-year-old who has hacked into sites of corporations from Worldcom to The New York Times, has been talking to me for days. I'd first seen him described as "the homeless hacker" in articles that spoke of his discomfort with staying in a single place, his lack of desire to hold a job. When I found out he often stayed in my hometown, I decided I had to find out his story. Now, what had started out as a journalistic phone call - a pure interview - has turned into something more. We've started talking outside of the realm of journalism, out of the world of technology and hackers, guessed passwords and back doors.
I realize that I'm becoming friends with one of the most unique minds I've ever met, and one of the most open and notorious criminals in the nation.
He can afford to be so notorious for one reason alone. Unlike many hackers, who destroy information and deface websites, Adrian never changes anything. When he has found a hole in security, he uses it to find others in the same system, often finding information on celebrities, politicians, and CEOs. Once he's reached the end of his quest, he tells the company and offers to fix the security flaws for free. Some companies accept the help gladly; others are more begrudging. Some threaten lawsuits - and worse.
Why does he spend so much time on a quest that could easily put him in prison? To Adrian, hacking is not just a hobby, and not just for play. And while he describes his occupation as "serial criminal" ("If I ever filled out tax forms, that's what I'd write," he says, laughing), he says he is not out to commit crimes. Instead, he calls what he does a "validation of faith."
Faith? Sure, says Adrian. He tells me that he has never hacked into a site by taking his time and working methodically. Instead, each time has been preceded by strange occurrences, events so unlikely that they seem impossible. Everywhere, I've read accounts of his uncanny ability to guess passwords, find hidden ways into sites. I had assumed that these were not random, that he had planned his attacks far in advance; now, though, he tells me that they were only chance - or at least a close approximation thereof.
"I don't believe in coincidence," he says.
Because to him hacking is, in essence, a spiritual quest, Adrian abhors the idea of destroying information, calling it "sacrilege." Other hackers, though, disagree with what he does - and don't hesitate to say so, publicly. Many believe that his hacking contributes to ever-tightening information security laws. Others think he is unethical. Some play on his last name - "Is Lamo a Lamer?" asks one newsgroup post.
Adrian shrugs these comments off. "I understand why they feel that way," he says. "I don't think what I do is right or wrong, it's just something I do." And he has been extraordinarily successful with what he does, finding his way into AOL, Excite@home, and other sites with relative ease.
Lately, Adrian has lamented the fact that he seems to be running out of major corporations to explore. When he runs out of buildings to explore at night, he can always move on to the next city - but there is no next internet. For now, though, he still sees plenty of challenges to come. What will he do, I ask him, if a company goes after him? "I do commit crimes," he says. "What I do is illegal - and I could go to prison for it. I'm sure I could learn something there, though, too, so it doesn't worry me that much."
Nothing fazes him, whether it's the threat of prison, increased government regulations, or the news stories that call for him to be stopped immediately. It comes from trust - trust that things will work as they should.
While this might seem strange, or even crazy, to some, as I continue talking to him it makes sense. People find faith from all kinds of things: the amazing synchronicities in nature, the complexity of our universe, the magic of love - so why not technology? Adrian has shifted real, genuine faith into the digital age. From the beginning of time, people have wondered about the hidden parts of nature. Now Adrian has begun to explore the hidden parts of the man-made, and has found them to be as awe-inspiring as anything in the natural world. He has found his faith in the way events in hacking and the rest of his life seem to just fit together, to combine seamlessly, even when they are almost unbelievably unlikely.
It happens again a few days later. Adrian leaves a text message for me while I'm at work. "I've rescued a kitten from a storm drain," it says. As it turns out, the kitten also rescued him - he first heard its mew inside the drain as police officers were approaching him for trespassing in a vacant parking lot. Quick on his feet, Adrian said to the officers that it was his kitten in the drain. Four squad cars and a nimble policeman later, the grey, black, and white kitten was out.
Adrian tells me he's decided to keep the kitten - he feels that both he and it were supposed to be there at that moment. He tells me he's even picked out its name.
"What is it?" I ask him.
When he tells me, I laugh. "Of course," I say.
He's named it Alibi.