But unlike a typical electronic intruder, Lamo would inform the companies exactly how he gained access--a move which let them repair the security vulnerability he exploited while sneaking in. Some of his targets even went so far as to call him "helpful" for offering advice.
All that changed in February 2002, however, when Lamo took credit for breaking into the network of The New York Times and snagging a database of about 3,000 op-ed contributors. That incident eventually led to a pair of federal criminal charges against Lamo and his arrest and appearance in district court in Manhattan last week.
Lamo is known for a radically mobile lifestyle with no fixed address that's led to him being called the "homeless hacker." He likes to wander the United States on Greyhound buses, sleeping on friends' couches and, when necessary, camping in vacant or derelict buildings.
Now his homeless days are over. U.S. Magistrate Judge Debra Freeman said last Friday that Lamo could be released on $250,000 bail, but only if he agreed to stay with his parents in their home near Sacramento, Calif.
CNET News.com caught up with Lamo at the airport last Thursday and interviewed him on his way to surrender at the FBI's New York field office.
Q: When you were poking around inside The New York Times' network, did you ever think that you'd end up here today?
A: I can't comment on which systems I may or may not have entered in the past.
You've told reporters many times in the past that you've entered corporate networks without permission. Did you?
Certainly not. (laughs) Yes, yes, I have.
If I get a job, it will not be security-related. I have no intention of letting them whore out my talents at their command.
I always knew it was a possibility, but I always expected better of the government.
I expected them to allocate their resources in a meaningful and worthwhile way. I really just expected that they would know better than this. I don't see what they are trying to accomplish here, who they think they're going to help, what precedent this will set. It doesn't matter how much restraint you show or what good faith you're trying to act in. There's no point in bothering at all. They'll come after you regardless. And as such, really, where is the motivation for anyone to behave honestly?
But if you violated federal criminal laws, isn't this a perfectly reasonable response?
It's a perfectly appropriate response under the letter of the law, but I don't think it to be a reasonable response...I believe it has been a waste of resources. The sheer number of agents it took to stake out my parents' neighborhood could have been doing many, many better things at that point in time.
So your argument is that they should have been trying to find kidnappers or al-Qaida members?
That's not something that I seek to use as a defense. It would be crass of me to invoke the whole "Why aren't they looking for terrorists" thing. I'm not going to do that. But I do think that they could have been doing something better.
You could have done some things differently to avoid being here today, no?
I believe that everything that has brought me here has been in its own way part of the design for the world around me, and I have faith it's going to work out for the best.
So you believe in fate, not free will?
Not at all. I believe that history tends to itself, the universe sees to itself, and that we are all equally facets of the universe. And even as the universe sees to itself, we contribute to its evolution and everything that we do causes a ripple that makes it a better place...That's the closest thing I have to a belief in a higher power.
So you don't think if you had chosen to publicize your exploits a little bit less, things would have turned out differently?
I think that things could have turned out differently if I had acted differently. But I think to act in a way other than what I feel I was here to do during my time would have been spiritual fiduciary misconduct.
Are you mentally preparing yourself for a possible prison sentence?
That's your favorite saying. What does it mean?
It means that nothing we do is wasted and that in the universe that we inhabit, it's a closed system under the laws of physics in which energy is never destroyed and everything that we do is redistributed and recycled to the place it should be.
I understand that the law applies to me and actions have consequences.
How long do you think these bad times are going to last?
Really as long as I continue to see them as being bad times. My time in the custody of the federal marshals could have been a bad time. When you go in there, the people in that small holding cell with you, it really does look like people out of a bad prison movie. But the reality was that just giving them a chance to be real human beings, they all warmed up conversationally. They were all being very supportive. They shared their advice and their experience and their troubles and what brought them there. We shook hands as best we could through our shackles on the way out.
Not just handcuffs, but shackles?
Actual honest-to-god shackles.
What was it like?
Everybody on the side of the U.S. Marshals was doing a job. Some of them were helpful, some of them were not. Some of them tried to get a rise out of me, some did not. One of the marshals, when offering me food, addressed me as "hey, thug." To the inmates, you're one of them and you're in it together.
(The experience let me) do exactly what I always said that I'd do: take confinement and turn it into a learning experience like anything else. I think that the government feels that they can take away what I do by restricting me from computers and forcing me to get a job. But I'm of the opinion that they can't even see what I do. It's so inherently alien to them that they really don't even understand or see it well enough to restrict it.
You've mentioned that some of the Feds have been treating you decently--that is, not as harshly as they could have. Is that true, and if so, why?
I really couldn't speculate why except that perhaps I have a reasonable prosecutor. I also like to think that he has really unknowingly been passed inaccurate information by The New York Times in terms of the facts that they've given him. And once the truth comes out, he may revise some of his standpoints.
As a condition of your release on bail, you're supposed to get a job or go to school. Which is it going to be?
I'm considering going to school part-time. If I get a job, it will not be security-related. I have no intention of letting them whore out my talents at their command. If I go to school, I intend to go to school for general education in preparation for a career in law or journalism.
What news organization would you want to work for?
You know, that's a great question. It's really hard to say because there are very few for which I really have a great deal of respect.
You're friends with Kevin Poulsen and Kevin Mitnick, who are both reformed hackers. Do you see either as a role model?
No, I do not.
Are you hoping for a legal defense fund?
A legal defense fund has been set up for me by Darcy, Kevin Mitnick's girlfriend. I'm not soliciting donations, and I'm not asking anybody to do so...
But you're not objecting to them...
No, I'm certainly not in a place in my life where I can tell people who want to give me money not to. We like to hope that the defense fund will cover some of our expenses.
Is any of this a lesson to other folks, like younger would-be hackers, who might look up to you?
I like to think that nobody would see me as a role model because I don't think there's necessarily value in repeating what's already been done. They should do something that's not been done before.
It sounds like you think the law is there, but it's irrelevant when you feel it interferes with what you want to do.
Not at all. I understand that the law applies to me and actions have consequences. I'm here today because I'm willing to face the consequences of my actions--that is, my alleged actions.
So you're willing to violate the law as long as you accept the consequences. Is that right?
I'm holding out hope that it will be found at the trial that I have broken no law...With the charges as they stand, I do not find them to be factual. I will not plead to charges that are not factual.
You only have two counts against you. Do you have any fear that the FBI will investigate other incidents and add more counts?
If that's the case I'll deal with those as they come. However, if they want to charge me for intrusions into companies that have thanked me for alleged intrusions, I don't know what kind of career they're trying to make for themselves.
How are your mother and father taking this?
It's been very hard for my family and those close to me. It's been extremely stressful. It's also been a bonding experience.
Have your parents said: "Look, you idiot, your actions are going to cost us thousands of dollars that we can't afford. Our house will be staked out again by the Feds and camera crews and we've had to put up our home as bond to get you out of jail. Don't do this again?"
No. My parents support me. They want me to stay out of jail. But they also understand that all the things I've done with my life are things that were important to me. And they support me in my happiness, and they understand the value of what I do.