Adrian Lamo: Hackers Wanted

“In trying to do anything substantive in life, you are going to have to understand that your adversaries are going to feel just as justified as you do.”

Adrian Lamo is a threat analyst and hacker, currently working with ProjectVIGILANT in Washington, DC.

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In 2010, Adrian informed the US Army that Bradley Manning had provided more than 260,000 documents to Wikileaks. “In the moment, I didn’t see it as pivotal in my life. I was focusing on the quantity of documents leaked.”

“Many people say that there is an inability to point to any direct damage or loss of human life as a result of the leaks. That’s not a result of the leaks being harmless, it’s a result of fast groundwork and action to mitigate the leaks that the United States took in the months leading up to their release.”

Why does the government need to classify some activities? What if we just open-sourced the military and declassified all documents?

“There is some information that is not readily evaluatable by the public. There are things that you have to have some experience in national security to be able to judge if something is appropriate or safe. If you are approaching it from the point of view of John Q. Public without any context into how the national security process happens, sometimes it does look bad. But the whole picture is not being seen.”

“The irony is that [the public] really can’t handle the truth. The truth is something that requires context. It requires involvement and internalization of it. You have to have a commitment to the process, to the importance of what is happening. It’s not something where you can just have a civilian review board look at it tabula rasa and say ‘let’s have some oversight of SEAL Team 6 by this collection of random activists.'”

In a past life, Adrian was a “helpful hacker”. He would find security vulnerabilities in big corporations, which were accessible via web browser, then notify the companies of their weaknesses and offer to help fix them free of charge. Several technology companies were helpful and receptive to his infiltrations. But The New York Times responded with primitive ire, pressing charges against Adrian.

“I don’t blame the New York Times. I understand the corporate mentality that led to their actions. I had always said that I knew what I was doing was illegal. The fact that it was helpful didn’t make it any less illegal.”

Our broader world is so conservative that even the icons we look to as symbolic of fast, advanced societal change often make decisions that are grounded in outdated feelings and beliefs. The New York Times is supposed to be a bastion of progressive, activist thought–they should have been able to comprehend Adrian’s helpful behavior and the motivations behind it.

“To that, all I can say is that their editorial mentality and their corporate mentality enjoy a certain cognitive dissonance.”

There is a pessimistic narrative of fear around technology. Whether Anonymous is lamenting how 1984 has become a reality, or Occupy activists are decrying financial innovation, or robot-fearing Luddites are complaining that the impending shadow of flying food delivery drones portends a future where we will all be hunted down like in Terminator, the public is sure about one thing: the future is scary.

In contrast to the usual offhanded comparison between our world and 1984, Adrian is in a position to give me a nuanced view on the topic of surveillance.

“The irony is that I can speak to that from both sides of the table. During my hacking days I lived my life under the assumption that I was never not under surveillance. During the past five years, I’ve been very conscious that my movements are closely watched by people in the hacker and activist community who would like to see revenge exercised for my actions in the Wikileaks case and the Manning case.”

“I basically behave as if the NSA is after me except its these extremely tolerant anti-surveillance people who don’t see the irony in their actions, who don’t see the way that they trivialize the value of my life through their rhetoric, saying ‘yeah, somebody should definitely put a bullet in him.’ It’s the same kind of rhetoric that trivializes the value of the life of those who are not completely with us, and so are therefore against us, the ‘terrorists'; both sides use this kind of rhetoric, that kind of trivialization of the lives of their enemies and they are unconscious of the irony that they are doing the exact same thing that they accuse the other side of doing.”

Since we were talking about the specifics of modern surveillance, I asked Adrian about  the best way to form a mental framework around the Snowden case.

“I wrote an answer on Quora that said that Snowden is essentially much more fracked than people think he is. He has most likely had far more of his secrets pried loose than he realizes. Russia has a world-class intelligence shop. He has likely been manipulated in ways that he does not even realize. I don’t think that he missed the significance of the fact that Russia is extending his asylum year by year. They don’t make any long-term commitments to him.”

“If you look at the history of the relationship between Russian and Western intelligence, when they have this sort of situation, when they have this sort of high-value target, what usually happens is that the United States gets their hands on somebody that Russia values more than Snowden, and a trade will be made, probably covered as some kind of violation of the terms of Snowden’s asylum, and that will be the end of his run as a free man.”

“The aiding the enemy charge was ridiculous in Manning’s case, but it would very much fit Snowden’s. He went to China first then Russia. You can’t go to aiding the enemy any more unless you went to some Sunni tribesman in Waziristan and tried to shop the material.”

What about the argument that these programs impact people in ways that people can’t understand or evaluate, and that the public needed to know about them in order to pass judgment on them? What if the only avenue Snowden saw to expose those programs was an avenue that coincidentally “aided the enemy”?

“The only avenue he saw was to approach a country that exercises these programs with much less restraint.”

“He didn’t try [to take steps within his job at the NSA]. He skipped straight directly to defect. That, I have very little respect for. It’s an action that requires–I hesitate to say bravery–but moral certitude. It’s not an action that shows he made a genuine effort to work within the system. By not doing so, he really denigrates all the people who have worked within the system, who have availed themselves of these outlets, who have tried to affect change within the rule of law.”

“There have been Freedom of Information Act requests about his actions, and none of them reflect an effort to work within the system.” This runs contrary to the common belief that Snowden made strong efforts to make changes from within the NSA.

“In the hacker community people assume I have the government’s interests in mind. On the government side, people assume I’m playing both sides in some way. But people listen.”

“I’ve tried to work within the system, and I feel like I’ve had some success in trying to prove that not all hackers are at the extremes of society. In the government, there is some common ground to be found if only the poisoned relationship with hackers could be fixed.”

To illustrate this point of supposed enemies working together, Adrian pointed out how after World War II, the German scientists who helped get the US get to the moon were formerly aiding the Nazis in trying to kill Americans.

Adrian has publicly disclosed his 2010 diagnosis with Asperger’s. I asked him if he thought people diagnosed with Asperger’s developed more acute symptoms after being diagnosed, because the diagnosis medically sanctifies antisocial behavior.

“When I was diagnosed, it was something of a relief. I could feel that I was no longer weird–I had an actual formal diagnosis for some of the odd aspects of my behavior. When I was young I had to learn social cues consciously in order to emulate certain reactions that came naturally to neurotypical people. I would hazard to say that the social reactions that one has to emulate consciously are more real than the ones that someone’s brain wires them into automatically without any conscious thought.”

“I certainly have never used it as an excuse for any particular behavior. We all own our actions and our behavior and much like I never felt ‘helpful hacking’ excused it as an illegal act, I haven’t felt that Asperger’s as a diagnosis excuses antisocial acts.”

Adrian once overdosed on amphetamines he had been prescribed. I was also once prescribed stimulants for ADHD. The drugs were explained to me as being very well-understood, and deterministic in how they would affect my body. But the reality is that they are more of a black box. We do understand how some of the inputs and outputs relate, but we have a weak understanding of the reasons why. This is much different than how well we understand a computer, which is a man-made, thoroughly understood system.

“Most of neuropharmacology is essentially guesswork. We know that lower levels of Serotonin are correlated with depression. We know that restricting Serotonin reuptake is associated with remission of depression. But there are many drugs that work on other receptors.”

“We’re just now coming to the point where people can take a DNA test that can help adjudicate which receptors of the brain are most in need of particular enhancements, so that they can take a particular drug instead of going through a laundry list of medications.”

What are some aspects of the world that people most commonly understand?

“The most common misunderstanding that people embrace is seeing behaviors in people that they perceive as their adversaries, which they reject and then emulate themselves, without realizing that they are doing the exact same thing that they are rejecting. One example is a discussion with a political activist type on Twitter who wanted to see all administration officials who supported surveillance programs put into prison. He had no conscious understanding that those same officials would want to see someone with those extreme views put in prison for wanting to curtail and damage programs of national security. ”

“People don’t see how similar they are to those who they perceive as their adversary.” This echoed Adrian’s previous point about feeling oppressed by the hacker-types who monitor his moves online, looking for him to pay restitution for his actions in the Manning case.

In closing, he gave me a profound piece of wisdom that I would be unlikely to hear from many other places.

“There’s a famous quote:  ‘All positions are prisons. No truth is truth.’ Indeed if you pick any particular position as your hill to die on, you are tying yourself to something that is fallible in some way. There is no absolute moral position that you can take where you are going to be unassailable.”

“In trying to do anything substantive in life, you are going to have to understand that your adversaries are going to feel just as justified as you do in opposing you, and that doesn’t mean that you are wrong, only that you inhabit a very complex system which requires that kind of stress to evolve. It’s that kind of stress, that kind of friction that brings society forward.”