Who and what starts a hacking group?
In 2003, Along with two other Eastern Europeans – I started a small hacking group by the name of Anonymous.
It hadn’t been my first. And most assuredly won’t be my last. However…
When I saw what some of these talented programmers were capable of in Eastern Europe….
To say I had been wowed by what they had achieved prior to our assemblage would be an understatement.
What did they do to wow me, a man who’s worked on computers since I was 11?
In the three years prior to me making contact with them, they had hacked the best of the best – the Pentagon, MIT, the US Navy, the KGB (yup they are still around), The Red Army (China), MI5 (the UK’s intelligence arm), and portions of MI6, as well as a number of banks and financial companies around the world.
Not that the hacks had not been done before.
But never to this extent, and so elegantly leaving absolutely no trace that they’d ever been there.
What they had accomplished was nothing short of a …
Hold on. Let me rewind a bit…..
In 2002, I was recruited by the NSA with my primary responsibility to work on a new form of Artificial Intelligence based on my work at Touchscape, which I would spearhead the group in. My secondary responsibilities included subcontracting to critical need firms of vital US Interest, and betting new recruits in the intelligence community which I myself might find of use, particularly with hacking and security.
The intro to the television show Person of Interest demonstrates the very real technology I helped create.
So in 2003, when I was offered an optional assignment for an intentionally low budget (and low radar) tour of primarily Eastern European countries, I jumped at the offer. I was not even aware at the time what the assignment was for, but given the opportunity of touring countries no one else I knew had been to, I couldn’t resist.
The assignment was pretty simple. The FBI was recruiting for offshore tactical operatives who might be able to help ‘fight the war on terror’. I was responsible for vetting candidates they had selected with the help of the NSA, with my primary focus on their technical capabilities, but I was given a little latitude with an oddly framed question I was asked to answer for every candidate:
“Would I hire this person for my own company and if not, why?”
My arrival city was in Munch. Where I arrived just in time (by coincidence, right? 😉 to enjoy Oktoberfest.
From there, I went to Prague (Praha), Czech Republic where my first contact was a hacker by the handle of ‘JacksonFive’.
JacksonFive had been responsible for a pretty large scale trade in credit cards, and was pretty good at social networking. Now I knew the FBI was trying to ‘nip’ the credit card thing in the butt, so why they picked this guy who was looking at a little protection in order to exit his business was a no brainer decision on both their parts.
This type of interview was par for the course for each location afterwards, where I spent time in Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic (A gorgeous city I highly recommend if you ever get the chance), Wroclaw and Krakow Poland, Bratislava, Slovakia, QUITE a few interviews in Budapest, Hungary, Sofia, Bulgaria – and a young woman named Julia who I had met in Romania who lived in Villa Koturny, Bulgaria, and then finally off to Thessaloniki, Greece before getting the rest of the trip to myself – where I went by ferry to Bari, Italy – then to Rome for a few days, then off to Amsterdam for a week of things I didn’t put on my report.
Mushrooms. Prostitutes. Acid once. A little weed (too much to handle in fact – it was too hard core there) more mushrooms. More Prostitutes.
The things you do in Amsterdam and don’t tell anyone about.
The interviews were hit and miss, I would say I shot down about 70% of the candidates based on lack of tangible technical skills alone. They’d been hackers, but there’s a difference between a hacker and a script kiddie and that’s what these people were. They could pull down the tools and push the buttons and look at the pretty lights, but actually demonstrating tangible knowledge about what they were doing.
And that question. That infernal question “Would I hire them”
That question shot down another 10%.
One had the skills but had the personality of a brick. And that’s an insult to the brick. Sure he might have the technical skills, but would you as a manager of co-worker be tempted one too many times to walk out of the office, go make your first shotgun purchase and then bring it back to the office after a day spent with him?
Another. A woman. Was quite literally too attractive. It’s bizarre to think about having a skilled woman in the workplace for me, but me, I would never have gotten any work done with her around. Period end of story. The NSA asked for my candor on that answer, and all I could do was reply with honesty.
And another I remember distinctly. Have you ever had someone you just feel tense around and can’t explain why? That’s what happened with him.
So when asked if I would hire them, the questions of skillset goes right out that door and becomes more one of which is personal preferences – based on personal experiences. It’s much easier to reject someone because they lack the technical skills, but when they have them but it’s not a great fit personally, that can make or break any project you’re working on and even you as a coworker, manager, or part of that team.
In any case.
When I met ‘Frank’ (not his real name) in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, I had been tired of the interviews by then. I had thumbed up two people in his city by the time he agreed on a place and time to meet him – “at his internet café”- which immediately had me thinking he had a poor command of the English language.
Language skills were critical for this role. So I went to the café not expecting much.
The café was right next to Babeș-Bolyai University in old town Romania, right down the street from the Retro Youth Hostel I was staying at. Prime real estate, and as I walked up to the place, I saw a new model Ferrari parked out front.
I’ve always dreamed of owning a Ferrari, a man can dream, right?
So they will always get my attention.
And as I walked upstairs to this not completely modern internet café, I looked at the 20 something-ish attendant and asked for Frank.
“Frank, he’s here,” he said in a somewhat subdued tone.
Imagine my surprise when a kid all but 13 years old playing Warcraft 3 comes over to me, with the broadest, happiest smile you can imagine on his face, and says to me “I am so happy to meet you. Will you play Warcraft with me?”.
I was at a point where I wasn’t in a hurry for my next destination, needed a breather anyways, and had enjoyed a good game of Warcraft anyways.
“Sure,” I said.
For three days, we sat and played – not so silently – round after round after round of Warcraft. He was good. Real good. And I was evenly matched. For every game I won he won.
In this time I learned his language skills weren’t so great.
But I also learned he owned three restaurants, he took me to each one.
I also learned the Ferrari was his. One of two he owned. And a Bugati.
He didn’t drive them. Couldn’t – his parents would not let him, as he wasn’t even of legal age yet and he actually obeyed local laws. So his eighteen year old friend or his nineteen year old brother drove for him. But being a two seater, we could not go anywhere in it. He even offered for me to drive it, but I foolishly squandered the opportunity to drive it, saying “If I get into an accident, I will never feel good about myself”
Despite his assurances that it would be fine…
His mom worked one of the restaurants. Her son had bought it for her, it was her dream to have her own, so he bought an Italian place just for her and had it custom furnished with top of the line stuff just for her. Her father, he had his own restaurant anyways, a Mediterranean place called Fast Food Dorna, which featured really great shaormas and girros.
And that’s when I saw it.
On the third day, bored and needing to learn about this kid’s technical skills.
A big huge mural of the twin towers burning on his father’s restaurant wall.
“My brother doesn’t like America,” Frank said.
“Frank, I can’t continue playing games. Do you mind showing me what you have?,” I asked at his father’s restaurant.
For the first time since I had met him, he looked down.
“I show you after dinner,” he said.
We didn’t talk much after I saw that mural, as the mood changed pretty dramatically. I mean, I for one recognize that family influences, nurture and their way of life do not necessarily align or dictate our own, but they certainly can’t help but shape it and who we are, which was cause for some concern.
But not, in my opinion, enough for dismissal altogether.
So after dinner, we headed back to the internet café across the street.
“There’s something wrong with America,” he said.
It’s the first time I had heard it stated as bluntly as that.
“What do you mean?”, I asked.
“I show you,” he said, as he guided me to the room next door to where all the computers were. It was another room, very similar to the one we had been playing in, full of computers, but eight of them were situated on one desk with one chair.
He went into a side room, where his friend came out.
“I’m Joe (not his real name), and Frank says we can trust you,” he said as he handed me a stack of papers – printouts – about an inch thick.
I looked at the paperwork.
The first few sheets had my real name. My date of birth, my entire life’s history – my financial information – a diagram of my friends and family and what we did together – the printout even had every sex partner I had had, some even my best friends and family were not aware of.
“How in the fuck did you get this?” I asked.
Frank was looking down, almost embarrassed as Joe looked at me said “We know you’re flyerbri, and you created L0pht and you work for the NSA.“
I could feel all the blood drain from my body.
I remember every fiber in my being saying get the fuck out of this room as fast as possible and never look back.
Frank and I had bonded pretty quickly. I liked his heart. You don’t see that much in my industry.
So when he looked at me and said, with tears clearly forming in his eyes “We know you don’t like hurting people.”
That’s when I saw it.
Two grown men, about 6’5”, 300 pounds each – guarding the downstairs exit.
I couldn’t leave if I wanted to.
It was one of the first times I have ever genuinely been scared in my line of work.
And it wouldn’t be the last time I was that scared in Romania.
“Turn the page,” joe said, pointing at the stack of papers.
I turned the page. It was detailed black budget information on top secret MIT contracts with the DOD. Another page. It was a printout of names, titles, and passwords for the US Navy command. U turned the page. It was a log trace of the CIA accessing KGB computers and the data they had retrieved. I turned the page. It was a correlated list of Chinese leaders to payoffs through HSBC. I turned the page. It was MI5 financial data flow information on how they created the Nigerian scams to make up for shortcomings in their operational costs.
This went on for quite literally 350 pages.
After I had calmed down. We talked. And talked.
I asserted that I was not working for the NSA. I never, ever, once gave up my cover. Even in the light of direct evidence to the contrary, I refused to admit it.
However, I did say this “I am here as a private consultant to help the FBI because of my technical skills which you clearly have documented from my resume, and this is one of the rare cases I will say without a doubt to both you and the FBI that you both need to part ways for THE SAME reason.”
Why is that, he said, as if I had just sucker punched him.
I responded quickly. “The moment our interests misalign, you are a threat to national security. We know through history how America treats those who are deemed a threat to National Security.“
He smiled. Knowing this was my way of defending him.
That’s when I remembered one of the first things he said.
“Frank. You said something’s wrong with America. I think you just made me realize what it is,” I said.
They both looked at eachother.
Joe finally relaxed a bit and sat down for the first time, as he motioned to the door guards to leave.
“What are you thinking?,” Frank said.
“Hold on, “ I retorted, “don’t leave,” I said talking to the guards.
“huh?,” said Joe.
“I think we can change the course of this world if we plan this right. And we’re going to need them.”
Joe motioned for the guards to stay.
“But we are going to have to trust eachother implicitly”
Joe and Frank I could tell were a little put off. I’d only technically known them for three days by this point.
The next thing I said took them by surprise.
“We are going to form a new anonymous hacking group we won’t name. But as we do this, I need you to NOT work with the US or FBI.”
“This is like spy game!,” Frank said.
“Kind of,” I responded
“So what do you want us to do?,” Joe said.
“We’re going to send the US a message that I need you to understand what happens with communication and why. You’ve found something I don’t fully understand and I need to for my own country’s health. From there, I need you to stay completely off the grid and not talk to me until you’re absolutely certain it’s safe,” I said.
They were clearly engaged.
“What message do we send?”
“I need your bodyguards to beat me up. I need you to send me knock ne unconscious and send me to the hospital.”
Their smiles disappeared.
“They are only for show, we would never do that,” Joe said.
“Regardless,” I said, “I can’t have any of it being linked to me and you here. Drop me off, at the doorstep to the hostel when you’re done.”
“We can’t do that!”
“You just showed me evidence that you had cracked through the world’s most secure organizations in the world as I know it. You found information about me that I barely remember, let alone my best friends or loved ones have any clue about. Yet. I’m the only representative you’ve seen or heard of from my country. I need to understand why,“ I said
“How will this help?,” Frank said.
“I don’t know,” I said, “And for some reason that seems important.”
I made friends that night, friends who I don’t whether they know who I am or remember who I am any longer.
The bodyguard put me in a coma. As it turned out, he was a pro boxer on the local circuit out there, with fists twice the width as mine and his first punch knocked me out.
They broke three ribs, ruptured my spleen, and somehow snapped a pec muscle.
I’d asked for a beating from two guys who simply enjoyed beating.
And invariably. This all helped me learn about what I didn’t know about this world.
It’s cyclic nature.
And how I am still recovering my memories from these past events – and who people were and what they were.
Like the kid who was scared holding what I thought was a gun behind his back in North Carolina.
I don’t remember your face, Joe. But I know that was you.
I know what I say and do often seems crazy. I won’t argue with that any longer.
But I have learned is this:
The cycles of life are not just limited to the birth and death of animals. They are not just limited to the life span of a tree, a forest, a storm system. It all extends further than I was ever previously capable of comprehending. To planetary systems to star systems, to galaxies and their formation, to clusters of galaxies, to universes themselves, and beyond that – to the multiverses – a true plurality of all of existence which many universes do not remotely resemble the world I accepted as my own.
The ‘artificial world’ is quite often a mirror of the natural world and vice versa. They mimic eachother. Oftentimes what’s natural becomes indistinguishable from what’s artificial and vice versa. As what happened to me split my own mind across eternity, nature versus nurture was the struggle for control of my very own mind and the outside world as I imagined it wanting that control for itself.
We are the only three who were ever involved with Anonymous.
And what you see in the real world is a reflection of how many times we’ve danced in the multiverse to wind up where we are at today.
Sometimes. When you play games with such wonderful opponents as you two.
You begin to realize.
You all were never opponents after all.
You are friends.
Who believe I am a good man.
You’re not wrong.
But I have realized I need to be something other than just a good man.
You two are the world’s second best hackers.
Are you ready to change the world?
If you do choose to meet with me now or in the near future.
Please don’t tell me anything I haven’t specifically mentioned yet.
I want my ‘memories’ to come back to me naturally.
On a final note:
We never named our hacking group.
But when the FBI learned about us, they tried naming us Anonymous for a reason. We are anonymous, but that’s not our name.
That’s just their way of trying to break up organizations deemed harmful to their interests that they don’t know and can’t control.
Whether or not they fully comprehend what this does to the human mind I’ve yet to understand.
But Frank and Joe, it’s not the NSA or CIA which needs reformed.
They’re both fine.
It’s the FBI.
CSR. Read up on that.
I am where we planned for me to end up, it should be quite the show.
I know where to find you once the fireworks are over.
And remember 9/11: There are no real enemies. Only very powerful stories.
You taught me that.