A hacker for the NSA speaks up
Peter Maass reports in The Intercept:
The message arrived at night and consisted of three words: “Good evening, sir!”
The sender was a hacker who had written a series of provocative memos at the National Security Agency. His secret memos had explained — with an earthy use of slang and emojis that was unusual for an operative of the largest eavesdropping organization in the world — how the NSA breaks into the digital accounts of people who manage computer networks, and how it tries to unmask people who use Tor to browse the web anonymously. Outlining some of the NSA’s most sensitive activities, the memos were leaked by Edward Snowden, and I had written about a few of them for The Intercept.
There is no Miss Manners for exchanging pleasantries with a man the government has trained to be the digital equivalent of a Navy SEAL. Though I had initiated the contact, I was wary of how he might respond. The hacker had publicly expressed a visceral dislike for Snowden and had accused The Intercept of jeopardizing lives by publishing classified information. One of his memos outlined the ways the NSA reroutes (or “shapes”) the internet traffic of entire countries, and another memo was titled “I Hunt Sysadmins.” I felt sure he could hack anyone’s computer, including mine.
Good evening sir!
The only NSA workers the Agency has permitted me to talk with are the ones in its public affairs office who tell me I cannot talk with anyone else. [Interesting use of a restrictive clause: the implication is that some workers in the NSA public affairs office would allow the writer to talk to someone else, but he’s not permitted to talk with them. – LG] Thanks to the documents leaked by Snowden, however, I have been able to write about a few characters at the NSA.
There was, for instance, a novelist-turned-linguist who penned an ethics column for the NSA’s in-house newsletter, and there was a mid-level manager who wrote an often zany advice column called “Ask Zelda!” But their classified writings, while revealing, could not tell me everything I wanted to know about the mindset of the men and women who spy on the world for the U.S. government.
I got lucky with the hacker, because he recently left the agency for the cybersecurity industry; it would be his choice to talk, not the NSA’s. Fortunately, speaking out is his second nature. While working for the NSA, he had publicly written about his religious beliefs, and he was active on social media. So I replied to his greeting and we began an exchange of cordial messages. He agreed to a video chat that turned into a three-hour discussion sprawling from the ethics of surveillance to the downsides of home improvements and the difficulty of securing your laptop. “I suppose why I talk is partially a personal compulsion to not necessarily reconcile two sides or different viewpoints but to just try to be honest about the way things are,” he told me. “Does that make sense?”
The hacker was at his home, wearing a dark hoodie that bore the name of one of his favorite heavy metal bands, Lamb of God. I agreed not to use his name in my story, so I’ll just refer to him as the Lamb. I could see a dime-store bubble-gum machine behind him, a cat-scratching tree, and attractive wood beams in the ceiling. But his home was not a tranquil place. Workmen were doing renovations, so the noise of a buzz saw and hammering intruded, his wife called him on the phone, and I could hear the sound of barking. “Sorry, my cats are taunting my dog,” he said, and later the animal in question, a black-and-white pit bull, jumped onto his lap and licked his face.
The Lamb wore a T-shirt under his hoodie and florid tattoos on his arms and smiled when I said, mostly in jest, that his unruly black beard made him look like a member of the Taliban, though without a turban. He looked very hacker, not very government.
When most of us think of hackers, we probably don’t think of governmenthackers. It might even seem odd that hackers would want to work for the NSA — and that the NSA would want to employ them. But the NSA employs legions of hackers, as do other agencies, including the FBI, CIA, DEA, DHS, and Department of Defense. Additionally, there are large numbers of hackers in the corporate world, working for military contractors like Booz Allen, SAIC, and Palantir. The reason is elegantly simple: You cannot hack the world without hackers.
In popular shows and movies such as “Mr. Robot” and “The Matrix,” hackers tend to be presented as unshaven geeks loosely connected to collectives like Anonymous, or to Romanian crime syndicates that steal credit cards by the millions, or they are teenagers who don’t realize their online mischief will get them into a boatload of trouble when Mom finds out.
The stereotypes differ in many ways but share a trait: They are transgressive anti-authoritarians with low regard for social norms and laws. You would not expect these people to work for The Man, but they do, in droves. If you could poll every hacker in the U.S. and ask whether they practice their trade in dark basements or on official payrolls, a large number would likely admit to having pension plans. Who knows, it could be the majority.
This may qualify as one of the quietest triumphs for the U.S. government since 9/11: It has co-opted the skills and ideals of a group of outsiders whose anti-establishment tilt was expressed two decades ago by Matt Damon during a famous scene in Good Will Hunting. Damon, playing a math genius being recruited by the NSA, launches into a scathing riff about the agency serving the interests of government and corporate evil rather than ordinary people. Sure, he could break a code for the NSA and reveal the location of a rebel group in North Africa or the Middle East, but the result would be a U.S. bombing attack in which “1,500 people that I never met, never had a problem with, get killed.” He turns down the offer.
In recent years, two developments have helped make hacking for the government a lot more attractive than hacking for yourself. First, . . .