Adrian Lamo expected a job offer, instead he got convicted.
Adrian Lamo is the man behind all above mentioned events. Lamo grew up in a bilingual family and spent his childhood living both in Boston and in Bogotá. His parents said that early on he developed a great interest in computers and complex problem solving. Already as a child he started hacking into different computer games. He also liked playing with viruses on floppy disks and tapping into strangers‘ phone lines while finding ways to trick phone companies in order to make free long-distance calls.
“Ever since he was very young he has shown a tendency to be a lateral thinker, and any problem you put in front of him involving a computer, he could solve almost immediately,” Lamo’s mother Mary said in an interview in 2003. As a teenager Lamo managed to solve truly complex computer problems. During a class in high school, he surprised his teacher by solving a computer problem the teacher said was impossible, according to NPR, National Public Radio in California.
As a teenager, Lamo started identifying himself as bisexual and during many years he worked as a volunteer for the gay and lesbian media firm PlanetOut Inc. He spent most of his lifetime living without a fixed address, he mainly slept on friends couches or in abandoned buildings. And if he had to go somewhere, he walked long distances by foot or took Greyhound buses. Drugs were also a common part of his lifestyle and his favourite one was kratom, which he used as a more harmless alternative to opioids, reporting Britannica.
White hat hacker
Lamo started his hacking career as a white hat hacker, meaning that his hacks where done in ethical manners and not due to own winning, He felt both excited and afraid when he saw how rapidly the Internet was growing. He sensed a lack of attention regarding cybersecurity in the early days of the web. He saw the security flaws and in order to prove their existence, he decided to go on a hacking spree.
He started performing hacking missions from Internet cafes, libraries or just the nearest place possible with available dial-up connections. He worked with an old laptop with seven missing keys and broke into corporate computer systems without causing damage to the systems involved. He always followed the same concept, which involved finding security holes and offered to fix them free of charge. If the holes were not patched, he alerted the media to create public attention for it to happen.
Lamo easily hacked into famous companies like AOL and Yahoo, suggesting that something was broken. His success proved that anyone could hack the companies, not only him, reporting People Pill. His security flaw discoveries lead to praising from some companies, like WorldCom which openly expressed gratitude to him, for helping them to fortify their corporate security. And that was the aim of it, Lamo loved receiving attention and publicity for his actions. “He wanted fame and media, it is what motivated him”, a friend of his said in an interview with Wired.
Money was not a driving force for Lamo, since he did not earn anything by his corporate hacks, he signed up for temporary digital security jobs in order to pay his bills and sometimes spent nights sleeping in the buildings of their offices.
New York Times and Wikileaks
During Lamo’s lifetime, he mainly became famous due to two specific events, the happenings around Wikileaks and The New York Times.
In 2002, Lamo’s name was all over the media. He had found an open proxy on the network of The New York Times. He hacked into the network, created fake passwords and gained access to private information from more than 3000 contributors to the paper, but he didn’t publicize or steal any data. Instead, he decided to have fun with it and added himself to the paper’s internal database of experts — as an expert in hacking.
The paper did not appreciate Lamo’s joke. They claimed charges and in 2004, Lamo was found guilty for the happening, paid a fee and stayed half a year in home detention. It ended very different to what Lamo had expected. A friend of Lamo said, „He was really appalled that he didn’t get a job offer out of that. He thought he’d be made a security consultant”. But instead of a job offer, Lamo got a felony record and started to feel like as if the federal authorities constantly were watching him, according to NPR.
After the home detention, Lamo started a career using his skills for good in critical infrastructure and national security areas. „I want to take responsibility for this, and I want to put it behind me”, he said to Wired. Lamo’s life thereby took a calmer turn, until 2010, a year which came to change his life and position in the hacking world for good.
In May 2010, United States Army soldier Chelsea Manning (then Bradley) confessed to Lamo through an online chat that she had been leaking information. The information referred to around 750.000 classified, or unclassified but sensitive, military and diplomatic documents, and were leaked through Wikileaks. After contemplating the news, Lamo decided to report the incident to U.S. Army authorities, stating in Wired that he would not have turned Manning in „if lives weren’t in danger”.
The leak later got classified as the largest unauthorized release of state secrets in U.S. history, according to Britannica. The information involved, for example, a video footage of the 2007 Baghdad airstrike, later known as the „Collateral Murder“ video.
Manning got a sentence of 35 years for the happening and Lamo got heavily criticized for exposing her name. Hacking communities referring to him as a snitch, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, called Lamo „a very disreputable character“.Lamo’s cousin, Morrow, believed Lamo’s thoughts about being under surveillance may have played a part in why he chose to turn in Manning. He referred to it as Lamo believing that the authorities knew about the chats between him and Manning and would have been able to prosecute him as an accomplice after the fact, according to NPR. In the newspaper El País, Lamo expressed how he was thinking before turning Manning in.
“It wasn’t easy, of course it wasn’t easy, but a soldier had given WikiLeaks and who knows how many foreign governments thousands and thousands of classified documents. Do you know what might be in there? The names of undercover agents, the names of informers, secret locations that may now be attacked.”, he said to a journalist at El País.
The negative spotlight from the Manning affair, did not stop shining on Lamo and his medication intake increased. In 2011, Lamo went through a period of „hiding“, insisting that his „life was under threat“ after turning in Manning.
Lamo spent his last years living in Kansas, most of the time together with Debbie and Bill Schroggin, parents of a concerned friend who believed that someone had to take care of Lamo. At this time, Lamo had stop hacking into corporate companies, he was instead focusing his mind on more sinister forces. „It had to do with the dark Web, hacking into ISIS stuff,“ Debbie Schroggin said, saying that Lamo led them to believe that he was in Kansas on a secret assignment”, according to NPR.
On March 14 in 2018, Lamo was found dead in his apartment in Kansas. He was lying on a pile of clothes in the bedroom and the apartment was filled with huge piles of trash, dirty dishes, pills and powders.
Dr. Timothy Rohrig, chief medical examiner at Sedgwick County in Kansas, found clonazepam, etizolam, flubromazepam, benadryl, chlorpheniramine, citalopram, gabapentin, some decongestants and anti-diarrheals in Lamo’s bloodstream. He said that it was not enough to kill Lamo, but to put him in a very delicate state. A professor of psychobiology, Dr. Bertha Madras, at Harvard Medical School, said that even if it was not possible to tell what exactly caused Lamo’s death, it was well-known that people who mix „natural“ substances like kratom with prescription drugs were conducting their own human experiments. „They have no clue what they’re putting into their body and what the consequences could be”, reporting NPR.
Despite all the hate coming from the hacking community, Chelsea Manning herself said that she had nothing against Lamo. After his death, she passed a handwritten note to National Public Radio in California through her lawyer. It said „I’ve never had any ill will toward Adrian at any time. I’m more mad at the government for using him.“, reporting Daily Mail.