Shifting Privacy

Privacy is important to me.

I had forgotten that.

As a technologist, and an amateur hacker, I spent five years of my life learning the means to hack by joining gangs and buying books.

Back then, I was an idealist, and definitely toed the grey line of technology. I thought I was awesome – I had created an alias that I used to learn about hacking and I had this great little rig (8″ eePc running BackTrack) that I used to exploit networks around the College. I still remember the first time that I broke a into a WEP Network. It was exhilarating, liberating, and mostly terrifying. My only reason for hacking was my own personal gain, and my need to be connected. If I walked into a shop and could not get WiFi, I would target nearby WEP networks and brute-force their passwords. It was great. I learned a lot about networks, computers, and social hacking.

Around the same time, I was working as a Techie at a local school. My job focused on developing and piloting three major initiatives: iPads, Design Labs, and OpenSource Book Libraries. My boss was crazy (which is common), but the work was wonderful. I loved working with the kids and teaching them to use iPads in the classroom. We learned together and we played together. It was not uncommon for my students to play a round of TeamFotress when they had completed their work. In December, my school was broken into. My room was targeted and our iPads were stolen. Being a Techie, I had programmed our iPads to use “Find my iPad.” As soon as I learned of the break-in, I sent a command to all of the iPads to lock and report their location. Then we waited…

After school, I got a message from apple that a single iPad had checked in. I immediately called both the Detective assigned to the case and the School Security Officer. It was like you see in the movies, I was staring at a Google Map display that pinpointed the location of the iPad while directing the police to the house. It was one of those moments that I will never forget.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because at this point in my life, I was feeling invincible. I could use my knowledge to thwart criminals and for my own gain. This is a confession. My confession of the worst hacking I have ever done…

The only other time I had ever really hacked a system was when I was 12 years old (which is also a great story).


 

Five years ago, I received a text message which simply read, “Please come over. My roommate needs help.”

Since most of the text messages I receive are a bit less urgent, I immediately jumped into the car and drove the two miles to the source of the message. Not knowing what to expect, I came over armed with just my phone and my willingness to “help.” Little did I know that by the end of the night, I would have opened emotions and feelings that I had never expected. I helped someone who needed help – with no reservations – and jumped off a cliff. Yes, I know, I am painting it a bit thick, but looking back – I have never recovered. Five years later I am still carrying around the baggage from that night. The emotions and my actions have jaded my use of technology. I am recovering, and this is a big step in that recovery.

That spring night, when I walked into my friends house, I was sure that I could tackle anything – and I did. When the door opened, two of my friends were holding letters and frantically crying / calling the police. It took a full five minutes for them to communicate what was going on: they had found the suicide notes of a third friend and were trying to find her. The more I learned, the more helpless it seemed the situation was. All we had were the suicide notes and the knowledge that she had left the house to take her own life. As we talked with the police, they kept asking – “do you know where she may have gone. Is there anywhere in the area that she is connected to.” None of us could thing of where she would go. But we tried to offer vague guides “she likes water”, “try going up the mountain.”

After about a half-hour (or at least what seemed like a half-hour), it clicked that my friend is an iPhone user. My immediate reaction was to search the house for the phone – did she have it with her, or was it in the house? Frantically searching, I found her laptop, but – thankfully – her phone was missing.

I grabbed the Laptop and went to work. Within about 3 minutes, I had ransacked her internet history, emails, and calendar. I could not find anything that would be useful, so I kept going. Breaking into whatever I could trying to find some clue as to what was going on. My first goal was to see if she had any appointments for the day or messages that would have set her off. Nothing.

As the despair started to sink in again, it clicked – iCloud and find my iPhone. I could not afford to wonder if she used it or if it was turned on, I hit the iCloud website and hit a password wall. Her recovery questions were vague, so I had no luck with guessing. To my surprise, after hitting the wrong password a few times, I could send an email with a Password Reset link. I sent the email, hit her email again, and changed the Password to a string of numbers. I was in.

Once again, I was on the phone with the police and a Google Map trying to direct a squad car to the exact location on the map. Then it started moving… and the police were unable to find her… I knew her exact location within a fifty feet and still could not help…

Then, as I was losing it, the police spotted her car on the road and pulled her over. She went into protective custody, and into a psychiatric hold. The officers explained to us how we saved her life, and that she had the materials in her car do the deed several times over.

So, it was a happy ending right? I saved a life.

I will always say that the ends justify the means, but I am the one who has to live with that. I am the one who has to go to my job and monitor computers and systems. My actions have haunted my decisions for the past five years. It is clear to me that I have chosen systems and processes that provide enough information so that I can act if I am ever put in that position again. I have sacrificed freedom and privacy in order to protect life.

This is my confession. I am a hacker. I am a criminal. I saved a life.

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