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Most hackers fall into one of two groups. They are either white-hat hackers which are computer enthusiasts who pursue noble causes or they are back-hat hackers which are basically cybercriminals. Adrian Lamo doesn’t fit into either category. He is known for infiltrating several major companies’ networks and also for exposing WikiLeaks during his time with Project Vigilante. Adrian took considerable care to control his own narrative. Several key elements of his story are discussed below.

Grey-Hat:

While Adrian didn’t fit into the black or white-hat category, most hackers would consider him gray-hat. He did seem to have positive intentions with his actions, however he definitely ended up on the wrong side of the law. Interestingly, unlike many hackers, Adrian didn’t want to hide his identity (2). He infiltrated networks and then called the media himself (2). It seems he wanted to help more networks be secure, however Adrian couldn’t seem to pinpoint just where to draw the line. Some companies were publicly thankful for his weakness exposing escapades (2). His joyride through The NY Times network however would be a major turning point for him.

NY Times:

Adrian may have thought his hack of The NY Times network would be just like any other. He was likely overwhelmed by the access to the star studded spectrum of talent. It was however the company’s pay for search service, Lexi Nexi, he couldn’t resist. Adrian illegally used the search tool to find information on many of his critics and adversaries (2). In the end the FBI estimated the total fees for his frolicking to be around $300,000 (1). These numbers were not what the company actually had to pay, but he was done in by his curiosity none the less. He ultimately was sentenced to 6-12 months in jail and had to repay around $68,000 (1).

Project Vigilante:

Adrian did seem to be quite remorseful. He eventually went on the volunteer for a government contractor group known as Project Vigilante (4). It’s not 100% clear what Adrian’s role was, but what he encountered was nothing short of remarkable. Adrian was contacted by Chelsea Manning, a US soldier, who claimed to have leaked several hundred thousand documents among other things (4). Adrian knew he was in a tough spot. These documents contained information about people that could ultimately get them killed (4). Adrian shared the information with the US government well before the docs were made public (4) which theoretically allowed them to help those who may have been compromised before they may be harmed. It wasn’t an easy path to tread, but Adrian wasn’t comfortable having any blood on his hands.

Gone Too Soon:

Adrian died in 2018 at the age of 37. His cause of death remains ambiguous. He had several drugs in his system, but nothing directly pointing to his death (5). He had a history of seizures which could’ve played a factor in his passing as well. What is curious though is Adrian had a Project Vigilante sticker adhered directly to his skin underneath his clothes (5). It’s a somewhat bizarre circumstance by itself, but even more so given the fact the project had not been active for years. Perhaps this was one last swing at controlling the narrative.

Summary:

Adrian Lamo was a hacker who marched to the beat of his own drum. He would conjure his own narrative and then get the media involved to publish it. He was not always able keep control as in the case with The NY Times. While Adrian wasn’t likely pleased with the outcome, his willingness to accept responsibility and show remorse seemed to help change his course. While many in the hacker community may consider Adrian a snitch, many Americans consider him a patriot. He may not have controlled some of the larger elements of his story, however he did get to become a hero in a way he never expected.

Check out the Famous Hackers and their Groups series along with other great Cybersecurity pieces here.

References:

1. https://www.wired.com/2004/04/hacker-5/

2. https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2017-01-18/hacker-who-turned-in-chelsea-manning-it-was-not-my-most-honorable-moment

3. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/17/obituaries/adrian-lamo-dead.html

4. https://www.forbes.com/sites/firewall/2010/08/01/stealthy-government-contractor-monitors-u-s-internet-providers-says-it-employed-wikileaks-informant/#5af88291afd3

5. https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2018/06/months-later-famed-hacker-adrian-lamos-cause-of-death-remains-a-mystery/