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1/23/2004
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Best Of Listening Post

People might call 'helpful' hacker Adrian Lamo many things, but 'saint'? News about Lamo's recent guilty plea over system-intrusion charges found forum posters waxing heroic.

Hackers Just Need TLC

First, a disclaimer: Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of this writer, InformationWeek editors, CMP Media, United Business Media (our owner), or the leaders of the Western democracies. We're just the messenger.

In our continuing coverage of hacking, we occasionally follow up on the travails of one Adrian Lamo. Lamo (pronounced LAH-moe by supporters) pleaded guilty Jan. 8 to using security lapses to unlawfully gain entry to companies' databases. He then alerted the companies and offered to help fix the holes free of charge.

One of Lamo's highest-profile exploits was getting into a New York Times writers' database.

I fully expected to see scrolls of posts demanding a Tibetan sky burial for Lamo. Imagine my surprise when "Pete Galaxie" writes that the hacker should be "sainted". "Everyone is crying about security. Well, here is a guy who can tell you how you are vulnerable for sure," Galaxie writes.

It appears that successful hacking isn't a novel event in Galaxie's experience. He says he once worked for a Fortune 500 firm that was hit by a hacker who then demanded $30,000 to help fix the problem.

"I don't think they paid the hacker, and it's too bad because there were so many [holes] and it would have been money well spent. Security was so bad that it was something of a game among the administrators internally--how many ways can I hack into the corporate network?" Galaxie writes. "I guess it is an illustration of what happens when IT warnings are ignored by the top."

"Paul Bahre" allows that "maybe [Lamo] shouldn't have added himself to [the Times'] Op-Ed database," but doing so caused no real harm. In Lamo's plea, he nonetheless agreed to a monetary damage assessment resulting from his intrusions.

"Damage?" asks an incredulous Galaxie. "What damage did he cause?" He forced the paper to invest the resources it should have paid for in the first place in order to stop a malicious attack.

Writes Bahre: "I don't see how he cost the New York Times one red cent. The Times had the vulnerabilities before Lamo hacked them, and when he brought it to their attention, they had him arrested. Gee, thanks. ... Hacker damage [is] corruption to real data or loss of real data." Lamo didn't do that, Bahre maintains.

In fact, opines "Randy Bowie," "He's really just a kid, a very talented kid, with good intentions. It would be a crime to waste that talent. It would be a big loss for our society."

The real damage, according to "Gordon Burns," is from Lamo's trial. That was "a waste of our tax dollars."

So, if my math is correct, Lamo is a misguided boy genius who's being wrongly pilloried by petty captains of industry. He's got a chorus of defenders. One hacker detractor, "Geoff Collier," even says a Lamolike character is a necessary evil. Maybe someone akin to Judas Iscariot in the Passion Play. He must do evil in order to move history forward.

This is starting to sound like a social movement. But something's missing. ... What? What?

A boycott.

"Perhaps those who agree" that Lamo is misunderstood, writes Burns, "should petition the New York Times [to drop the matter], or perhaps people should boycott all of its publications."

Now, before things get out of hand, let me say we aren't owned by the Times. We're but the messenger. Don't be shy, but do be civil in the Listening Post.

Jim Nash,
managing editor, news and interactive products


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