Warning: this post is kind of long.
I like to avoid psychological terms, because I am skeptical regarding the epistemology of psychology* – but, to simplify the rest of this posting, I am going to freely use a term: “Sociopath”/Sociopathic.
The term “hacker” has been used and abused in a variety of ways. We could probably decompile our various definitions of the word until it was unusable** and, in fact, there have been various attempts to do that: some people want to define “hackers” as curious technophiles who sometimes stray into places where they don’t belong, led by love of exploration – while others want to associate hacking with cybercrime and the societal costs of their activities. I used to fight that particular war, but it turns out that the word doesn’t matter because it’s being used as a sheltering label or demonizing label by two incompatible agendas: it’s not possible to agree on a definition because neither agenda will accept the other’s definition. So: some hackers are curious and harmless, others are criminal. This is a real problem because the media and the general public hear “hacker” and some of them take the favorable definition and others take the destructive one.
The reason I think that the dichotomy between white-hat hackers and black-hat hackers is bogus is because both roles involve adopting the mindset and methods of the worst role. In order to think like a “good guy” hacker you’ve got to think like the “bad guy” – now we’re down to arguing over the strange quibble I sometimes encounter in online games: “I’m not a bad person, I’m a good person who is role-playing a bad person!” To that, I usually respond that if the role you consistently play is that of a bad person, then you’re probably not role-playing, you’ve just found an excuse to do something that you would probably be doing, anyway, if you hadn’t been able to make up a handy excuse.
That’s why I think it’s going to be useful to be able to employ the term “sociopathic” – the stereotypical sociopath from movies are characters like Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List” or Alex in “A Clockwork Orange” – they are characters that are so supremely selfish and lacking in empathy that they do things that strike the well-socialized viewer as lacking normal restraint, and a strange combination of predictable in their area of obsession, and unpredictable in other areas. For example, you can be pretty sure that Hannibal Lecter will do horrible things to you because that’s the focus of his peculiar obsession, but he may be so peculiarly obsessed about it that it’s almost funny; it makes sense – it’s practically forgivable. That’s why I feel that psychologists want to have a “disorder” called “sociopathy” or “antisocial personality disorder” they want to reflect, in a sense, that this person lacks a moral compass, that something is wrong with them, but because they are suffering from a disorder it’s not completely their choice.
There’s an important element to the stereotypical movie sociopath: they find a justification for their actions (usually as a response to a plot device) and their over-the-top reaction hinges on that justification – in fact, the drama of “Rambo” or “High Plains Drifter” revolves around this weird sort of: “you looked at me funny, so I burned your whole village to the ground” reflex. The difference between Hannibal Lecter is that he doesn’t really bother much with a self-justifying fig-leaf, but a movie sociopath like Alex in “A Clockwork Orange” will go to the trouble to cook up a reason to kick your teeth out so he can walk away feeling he’s done a good night’s work.
I want to avoid the whole stereotype (which I think is inaccurate) of the hacker-as-autism-spectrum non-neurotypical agent with reduced moral capacity, though it’s certainly hovering in the wings just offstage. The media loves to promote exactly that sort of obssessional behavior: the incredibly focused, brilliant, creative, socially awkward, genius. And there have been a few of them. The rest are more human and more ambiguous. The criminal hacker’s just in it for the money. They’re not hacking your machine to read your email, unless your paypal password is in there. They don’t care if they hurt you because getting your money is more important to them than your pain – they’re actually pretty morally clear: they don’t bother making excuses. The ones that are unusual are the ones that violate your privacy, invade you electronic home, throw electronic molotov cocktails at whatever they think will burn – and then try to convince you they were doing a you a favor. They’re sociopathic.
In an area where there is a deliberately-constructed gray zone of appropriate behavior, like hacking, you’re going to attract sociopaths.*** The media’s promotion of sociopathic hackers has forced a de-clarification of the line between appropriate behavior and unacceptable behavior, which allows the sociopaths to have it both ways: they violate privacy and convince you it was for your own good. Here is the problem: they’ve just showed you that they are willing to violate other people’s (and by extension, your) privacy and rights, but you accept their actions because they tried to convince you they’re on your side. They’re actually not on your “side” at all; they’re doing whatever it is they want to do, and they’re throwing up a sophisticated but utterly glib smoke-screen for why they are doing so.
I have some history with some of these guys. Before I start talking about that, let me emphasize a point I’ve tried to make implicit: I am not attempting to diagnose these people as having a “disorder” of some sort. I’m using the terms the psychiatrists use as an epistemological inventory indicating a “disorder” as a short-hand. When I call some of these hackers “sociopathic” I mean that they’re people I would never trust for a second because I have seen that they are glib, charismatic (sort of) (well, glib, anyway) moral nihilists who are quick at coming up with very plausible excuses for doing things that under circumstances except for with that excuse we’d consider their actions to be wrong, intrusive, suspicious, and mendacious.
The first of the hackers I ran across was Kevin Mitnick. He cost a few people I knew at Digital (while I was working there) their jobs, fulfilling his “curiousity” exploring the corporate network. There was no sign that he had any practical way of making money doing what he was doing – in fact, that was a lot of his defense of his actions. Never mind that when a hacker breaks into a system, the system’s administrator’s life goes south for a while, maybe they lose their job, and they certainly have their personal schedule violently re-arranged for a long time.**** Mitnick’s an interesting case: he simply cannot let go of hacking, it’s too central to his identity and his weak self-esteem. When he started off in hacking computers he got caught, was offered a job at Stanford Research***** (as a way of giving him a positive way to work with computers) but he immediately relapsed into hacking. He spent time in prison, on the run, and was hacking systems while the FBI was burning through taxpayers’ dollars trying to catch him, He got caught, was imprisoned again, and – wrote books about hacking, gave talks about hacking, waited till his probation was over and went back to hacking by putting a white hat on and selling his services as a “good guy.” It’s part of the old tradition of hiring safe-crackers to promote the security of your safes, but the wise safe-builder never turns his back on the former safe-cracker, especially if they have shown that they will go rogue again, and again, and again. How many times would Hannibal Lecter have to tell you he was cured before you’d have him over for dinner?
Mitnick’s “career” in computer security hasn’t been tremendously damaging, but it hasn’t been a success, either. There are few professional fields where you can list “was hunted by the FBI and was in and out of prison” as professional qualifications in your field. It doesn’t tell prospective clients you’re responsible, level-headed, and exercise good judgement. To me, that’s the key issue: I have no idea why anyone would hire a serial criminal, especially if they were trying to get you to pay them to continue doing the thing that wound them up in jail.
Another of the sociopathic hacker elite I’ve had mild brushes with was the positively creepy Adrian Lamo. Lamo appeared fairly quickly on the hacking scene and became a star after hacking the New York Times. As often happens when the media is given an excuse to report about itself, he was briefly a media darling. Around that time, several conferences had the bright idea of giving the sociopath a microphone – William Hugh Murray, a serious old-school mainframe security expert, and I (and a few others) refused to be on panels with Lamo, because we felt that it was implying he was one of our peers; it’d be like inviting a serial arsonist to address a conference of fire-fighters. At that time, the news was full of fascinating stories about this odd-behaving young man who lived in ditches and abandoned houses, travelling the countryside and hacking large corporations using flawless technique. Except, like Mitnick****** his technique was pedestrian and not particularly creative. He appeared to be going after targets of opportunity: the New York Times hack was the result of discovering a misconfigured system that was trivially exploitable, then exploiting it. So imagine if you, armed with basic security knowledge, did target assessments against a dozen newspapers, the odds you’d make progress against one of them are fairly high (especially if you did as Mitnick often did, and glibly walked in the front door) Then when you publish your break-in, you don’t mention the other eleven you tried but didn’t get into. It sounds a bit like the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy.
Lamo gave good interview, and he was “edgy” enough that he attracted a lot of attention from the media. It didn’t take very long for the security community to realize that he was just media-whoring, and to look into his background a bit. And it turned out that he was lying about lots of stuff – including the bits about sleeping in abandoned houses all the time, and so forth. Finally, he 911-called the police in for help, saying he was lost and delusional and was briefly institutionalized then diagnosed with Asperger’s. But here’s the thing: it would be a pretty good strategy to do that, if you were worried about being prosecuted for being an expensive pain in the ass. Now you can repudiate any or all of your lies and actions by saying variously “not my fault” or “don’t remember it” and so forth. Meanwhile, that gave people a chance to talk to his parents and it turned out that some of the times he was allegedly travelling around the country on hacking missions, he was comfortable at home. The whole wad of lies that was Adrian Lamo went into the dustbin after that.
I felt fortunate that I never took Lamo seriously at all; others were less lucky. Kevin Poulsen, who writes for WIRED, is also a former hacker elite who has (I’ll say that much for him) tried to reinvent himself doing something that’s not hacking and running online cons******* but I suspect Poulsen’s background and past sociopathic behavior may have made him particularly susceptible to Lamo’s stories. Lamo played Poulsen hard, before Lamo’s whole game finally crashed and burned. But there was still some life left in Lamo, another opportunity to show the world what a sociopathic manipulator he was: because of the press attention he had been getting, Lamo was the hacker Chelsea Manning contacted about how to release the trove of secrets.
It looks like a pretty simple, obvious transaction: Lamo knew he was on the FBI’s list of sociopaths to watch, so he gave them Manning in order to ingratiate himself with them. If you’re interested in the way Wikileaks got famous, and how Chelsea Manning got hung out to dry, you owe it to yourself to do a little bit of research on that particular time and those events. Glenn Greenwald (when he was writing at Salon) has a version of his view of what happened, a view which I largely agree with, but which is probably slanted by being justifiably disgusted by Lamo. From my knowledge, there was also a security professional, Chet Uber, who got involved and directed Lamo’s interactions toward the FBI. Some of us do not talk to Chet, anymore, because of his shameful involvement in that situation.
Lamo flipped Manning to the feds, once Assange had the documents. Actually, Lamo was flipping Manning to the feds while the transfer was going on, it was a coin-toss how it all worked out, but no matter how it worked out, Manning was going to be roadkill and Lamo, Uber, and Assange simply didn’t give a shit for a second.
Here’s Lamo telling Manning their conversation would be protected because Lamo is “a journalist and a minister”:
(10:20:53 AM) bradass87: yes… questioned my gender for several years… sexual orientation was easy to figure out… but i started to come to terms with it during the first few months of my deployment
(10:21:09 AM) email@example.com: May I ask the particulars?
(10:21:34 AM) firstname.lastname@example.org: I’m bi myself, and my ex is MTF.
(10:21:34 AM) bradass87: im fairly open… but careful, so yes..
(10:22:00 AM) bradass87: im aware of your bi part
(10:22:24 AM) bradass87: uhm, trying to keep a low profile for now though, just a warning
(10:23:34 AM) email@example.com: I’m a journalist and a minister. You can pick either, and treat this as a confession or an interview (never to be published) & enjoy a modicum of legal protection.
A journalist and a minister!? Lamo is trying to imply that he’s like the small number of journalists who have gone to prison briefly rather than reveal a source. And then he’s trying to imply he’s going to invoke the confidentiality of the confessional? Poor, naif Manning. If only Manning had a real friend to say, “talk to a lawyer immediately, and buy a plane ticket to Hong Kong.” Remember: Greenwald later took this lesson to heart when helping Edward Snowden – he did not trust the FBI or whistleblower protections because he’d already seen how Lamo/Uber/Assange threw Manning to the wolves after they had gotten what they wanted. They served manning as callously and coldly as Hannibal Lecter would serve one of his victims with beans and a glass of good chianti.
Now we come to Assange. I don’t see Assange as more or less of a “piece of work” than these other characters; to me they’re all birds of a particularly nasty and dangerous sort, who flock together only when it’s convenient for them, and who’ll do or say anything without remorse, as long as it gets them what they want. One of the great tragedies of these affairs is that Julian Assange managed to successfully play one of the greatest sociopathic hacker scams of all times, to get himself positioned as a great human being, journalist, genius, etc. He’s definitely smart. But nobody who has had any interactions with the sociopathic hacker personality would turn their back on Assange for a second.
I first ran across Assange when he bizzarely popped up on the firewalls security mailing list, with an out-of-the-blue attack on a computer security researcher named Dan Farmer. Dan’s not a bad guy, he’s done some good work, some of which got blown out of proportion, but he’s definitely not the sociopathic hacker type. Suddenly, Assange pops up in a professional forum for serious security guys who are talking about firewalls, and dumps a weird homophobic “rap” about Dan Farmer – it seemed as though Assange decided to attack Farmer because he was an easy target in the community and some of the stuff Farmer had been doing was seen as edgy/questionable.******** Mostly, it was as though Assange realized, “Farmer is getting attention, and by attacking Farmer, I’ll get even more attention!”
It’s a long read but if you really want a sense for what Julian Assange is, I highly recommend  and  He’s the same sociopathic stew as the other hackers I’ve been talking about, the only difference – and I mean only difference – is that Manning unknowingly gave him a perfect vehicle for self-aggrandizement. If you read Rudder’s profile of Assange, you quickly discern the same pattern: lies constantly, doesn’t seem to realize what criminal behavior is or why, builds a consistent world-view that justifies his actions so he can do what he was going to do anyway, breaks relationships as if he doesn’t really understand what interpersonal relations are about, betrays anyone and everyone without batting an eye because it can be bent to be consistent with the self-justifying world-view.
Assange went by the handle “Mendax” for a while:
Mendax formed a closed group with two other hackers – Trax and Prime Suspect. They called themselves the International Subversives. According to Dreyfus, their politics were fiercely anti-establishment; their motive adventure and intellectual curiosity; their strict ethic not to profit by their hacking or to harm the computers they entered. Mendax wrote a program called Sycophant. It allowed the International Subversives to conduct “massive attacks on the US military”. The list of the computers they could recall finding their way into “read like a Who’s Who of the American military-industrial complex”. Eventually Mendax penetrated the computer system of the Canadian telecommunications corporation Nortel. It was here that his hacking was first discovered. The Australian Federal Police conducted a long investigation into the International Subversives, Operation Weather. Eventually Trax lost his nerve and began to talk. He told the police that the International Subversives had been hacking on a scale never achieved before. In October 1991 the Australian Federal Police raided Prime Suspect’s and Mendax’s homes. They found Assange in a state of near mental collapse. His young wife had recently left him, taking their son Daniel. Assange told Dreyfus that he had been dreaming incessantly of “police raids … of shadows in the pre-dawn darkness, of a gun-toting police squad bursting through his backdoor at 5 a.m.” When the police arrived, the incriminating disks, which he had been in the habit of hiding inside a beehive, were scattered by his computer. The evidence was removed. 
Rudder appears to buy what I suspect is a bunch of self-justification: that Assange and his hacker cats-paws were “fiercely anti-establishment.” My experience with the sociopathic hacker mindset is that they are “anti-control” – i.e.: if you rebel against everyone who is telling you “hey don’t kick puppies” then you are a brave hero if you figure out a way to kick puppies. I don’t buy that it’s real ideology for a second, because real ideologues usually do two things that the hackers don’t do very much of:
- They stand up to argue their ideology (even if it’s stupid and they do it badly. c.f.: Vox Day)
- They believe in their ideology enough that they don’t feel the need to be anonymous about it
I’ve debated this question with hackers before many times. My view is that if you’re really “curious” and “interested” about what’s on my network you can come here, sign my non-disclosure, and we’ll have a look together. Oh, you don’t want to do that? I guess you’re not “curious” about what’s on my network: what you actually want is the thrill of violating my security. Your “curiosity” is easy to satisfy, and is easily satisfiable but your voyeuristic desire to manipulate and control is not: the only way you can satisfy that is to be naughty, because what you really want is to be naughty, not satisfy curiosity. Put differently, if Assange were anti-establishment, he’d be using his skills and sociopathic charisma to align himself with various legitimate anti-government protest movements or political parties. But the problem with that is – if what you really want is control over others with no control over yourself, you have to step outside of politics entirely to do that.
I somewhat sympathize. Philosophically I would probably describe myself as a “moral nihilist” because I cannot come up with a convincing bridge across Hume’s chasm, and I found Kant’s arguments unconvincing after years of pondering them. But I’m saying it openly, right here, on a blog, and when I get caught doing something naughty, like speeding (guilty!) I don’t trot out moral nihilism as an excuse for arguing that the state has no authority over me. That’s just self-serving childish bullshit. Like you’d get from Mitnick, or Lamo, or Assange.
More from Rudder:
Assange descended into a personal hell. He was admitted briefly to hospital, suffering from what Suelette Dreyfus describes as “a deep depression and consuming rage”. He tried and failed to return home to live with his mother. He frequently slept along Merri Creek in Melbourne or in Sherbrooke Forest. He told Dreyfus that 1992 was “the worst year in his life”. The formal charges against Assange were not laid until July 1994. His case was not finally settled until December 1996. Although Assange had been speaking in secretive tones about the technical possibility of a massive prison sentence, in the end he received a $5000 good behaviour bond and a $2100 reparations fine. The experience of arrest and trial nonetheless scarred his soul and helped shape his politics. In his blog of 17 July 2006, Assange wrote:
If there is a book whose feeling captures me it is First Circle by Solzhenitsyn.
To feel that home is the comraderie [sic] of persecuted, and in fact, prosecuted, polymaths in a Stalinist labor camp! How close the parallels to my own adventures! … Such prosecution in youth is a defining peak experience. To know the state for what it really is! To see through that veneer the educated swear to disbelieve in but still slavishly follow with their hearts! … True belief only begins with a jackboot at the door. True belief forms when lead [sic] into the dock and referred to in the third person. True belief is when a distant voice booms “the prisoner shall now rise” and no one else in the room stands.
Self-aggrandizement, narcissistic bullshit, social failure, and a deep sense of entitlement, privilege revoked, and a desire for revenge. These are not the motives that make for a great journalist or paragon of political thought. This is a guy who is winding himself tighter and tighter and looking for a chance for when his more powerful enemies turn their back, to kick them really hard – and run. This isn’t a brave warrior, this is more like the hobbit, at the battle of Pelenor Fields, who nails the lord of the Nazgul behind the knee with a dagger. As Rudder points out, Solzhenitsyn spent a lot of time in a gulag after standing up for his beliefs: Assange was caught trying to hide his actions. One was a brave hero, the other a sociopathic hacker.
Assange was then cocked and locked, ready to go off at – whatever – however he could. He appears to have gravitated toward the cypherpunks back around the same time that I was hanging out there, during the early part of the Clipper Chip wars. I coined a term “rubber hose cryptanalysis” in a posting there, and Assange used that as the name for a secure communications program he wrote (with others) that never gained much traction because Phil Zimmerman’s PgP was the odds on favorite in the pre-text-messaging era. But Assange’s lack of self control and sociopathic inability to work with others, kept resulting in fallings out with his fellow travellers. Wikileaks bears some of the hallmarks of typical Assange fallings out – it’s unsure to what degree Assange controls it or doesn’t, but I’ve always assumed that it’s Assange and whichever of his hangers-on he hasn’t fallen out with yet; a rotating cast of fellow travellers some of which are ideologues and others of which are just waiting to be thrown under the bus when there’s a bit more traction needed.
I will say that Wikileaks was a brilliant and timely idea; but I wish it were done under the auspices of establishment journalism or even international governance. I’m not comfortable with Wikileaks being Julian Assange’s toy and the proof of that, I suppose, is in the pudding. It appears to me that Assange believed the false news report that Hillary Clinton wanted him killed with a drone-strike and probably would be happy to have revenge because she’s the quintessential establishment stooge who something something paranoia something something. I don’t even care what the reasoning might be: it’ll be self-serving motivated reasoning – consistent, defensible, and sociopathic lies.
Where we collectively went wrong is when the shattered remains of the old media embraced Wikileaks and sanctified Assange (the same guy who helped ensure that Manning is now rotting in prison – how’s that for journalistic ethics?) The historical significance of all this is that it shows what a bunch of dupes the media are; in a sense Assange prefigured Trump. Apparently you can fool all of some people all of the time.
I’ll also note that for all the tragic abuse Chelsea Manning has suffered, the shocking “Collateral Murder” video did not have that big of a political impact. It promoted Julian Assange front and center, but it didn’t stop Obama from expanding his use of drone strikes, and it certainly didn’t do a whit to reduce American militarism in the middle east. Assange won the 2011 Walkley Award (the Australian equivalent of a Pulitzer prize) for advancing journalism but the foolish journalists didn’t realize that the project wasn’t about advancing journalism, it was about advancing Assange. Compare the way Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras worked the Edward Snowden case, if you want a better example of journalistic effort – and they didn’t even throw Snowden under the bus in the process.
I included Mitnick and Lamo in this discussion, in a posting which is mostly about Wikileaks and Assange. Because the kind of people I am describing here as “sociopathic hackers” are always all around us, and always have been. I don’t think that a power-hungry sociopathic money-making machine like Donald Trump is much different in his inner landscape from a Mitnick or an Assange. From my perspective I simply think of them all as dangerous people, because they’re like razor-sharp double-edged knives with razor blades on the handle: you cannot think you wield them. They are not your knife in your hand, you are the muscle and legs that they are using to cut whatever they think suits them to be cutting at that particular time. When I watch the ‘flexibility’ with which Donald Trump approaches facts, I don’t think there’s a difference in substance between him and a social engineer like Adrian Lamo – he tells you what’s convenient for him to tell you to get you to believe what he wants you to believe when it’s convenient for him at that time. The preceeding sentence was deliberately constructed to be confusing, because that’s what figuring out these peoples’ motives is like. They’re like the NPC bosses in a computer game: they’ll do things that are driven by a random number generator, stay out of their way and don’t expect anything from them other than complex randomness. When we think about a person having a personality and “character” we are really saying that they can be trusted to act fairly consistently – well, what kind of personality can be trusted to act inconsistently? What kind of person’s main characteristic of relationships is that they destroy relationships? What kind of person can you trust to be untrustworthy?
Wikileaks: too many people made the mistake of thinking that the enemy of their enemy was their friend. In that kind of logic, you have to constantly be aware who is whose enemy, really. Assange’s enemy is the establishment, so he’s going to turn on the establishment wherever and however it gets him the most attention. That doesn’t make him a friend of liberalism. He only appears to be liberal because liberals don’t tend to do things like extrajudicial military killings. I know I am treading dangerously close to a “no true scotsman” argument, there. Sociopaths don’t do “friend” very well and if you think this guy is anyone’s friend:
Ask Chelsea Manning.
Back when I was CEO at NFR, we got a phone call from CNN asking if I could come down and participate in an interview with Kevin Mitnick. Mitnick, at the time, was promoting one of his books – it must have been The Art of Deception, so this would have been 2002. CNN wanted someone to offer the counterpoint “… but not all hackers are good.” view because presumably they figured that Kevin was going to be blowing his horn loud and long about how he was just curious and trying to make the world a better place, etc. So I raced downtown in time to go live, got the makeup and earbud and was led into the little bluescreen room for the great American Talking Head experience. While I was sitting there, I decided I was going to play mean, so when the interview started and the first softball question triggered Kevin going into an explanation about how it was “curiosity” and he “wanted to improve security” I interrupted and said “while you’re at it, maybe you can talk about how much your curiosity cost the taxpayers for the FBI to hunt you down twice, and society to imprison you. Tell how that improved our security, too.” And my microphone went dead and I took the metro back up to the office and the adrenaline wore off, eventually.
A couple weeks later thenwife and I were eating dinner and the phone rang. It was for me, she handed it over.
(voice) “Hey this is Kevin”
Kevin: “Kevin Mitnick. I wanted to call you and tell you what a bitch you are. You’re just mad because my book is selling better than yours.”
Me: “Oh, that. Kevin, if you think this is about money, you should look up the SEC filings under my name. I IPO’d a startup in 1997 and am on the board of directors of another publicly traded company. I don’t live off my book sales.”
Kevin: “Aren’t you wondering how I got your home phone number?”
Me: “Well, it’s on my website…”
In this post I’ve only talked about a few of the sociopathic hackers that are out there – ones I’ve talked to, crossed swords with, cleaned up after. The “Anonymous” collective is interesting: I’m sure that some of them are using flimsy justifications for doing whatever they wanted to, in the first place. That’s why I find it so egregious that the FBI basically recruited Hector Monsegur (aka “Sabu”) after he ran around hacking a bunch of security companies and basically making a great deal of trouble. His group, “antisec”, was against computer security companies, on the flimsy basis that they supposedly felt a lot of security companies had bad security. To which I say: “Yeah? So? Are you surprised?” Sabu believed so much in what he was doing that, when the FBI collared him after a few months’ rampage, he flipped to being an informant and threw all of his old buddies under the bus, while launching FBI-sanctioned cyberattacks against companies in Brazil, Brazilian banks, and some Brazilian police stations. His friends discovered that he wasn’t their friend, apparently – he was just another sociopathic hacker who believed in nothing except gratifying his urges and saving his own skin.
There are some ideologues in Anonymous, who probably believe in whatever they are doing – whatever that is – but there are doubtless a few serious sociopaths in the Assange/Lamo/Mitnick mold: they may appear to be “on our side” as long as our interests briefly align (e.g.: in the Steubenville rape case) but they’re just as dangerously flexible as Assange or Lamo. They’ll turn on you in an instant if you give them “reason” to.
One example that comes to mind is the “Lizard Crew” that took down Xbox live and Playstation Network. They claimed it was to promote a new DDOS service that they were offering, It seems like that excuse was grafted on only after they discovered that their DDOS tool worked. That was in much the same way as the “North Korea hacking” story was grafted onto a fairly typical-seeming breakin. This sort of thing fuels a lot of my skepticism about attribution: I don’t think you should take any justification from what the sociopath hackers claim. Typical of the flexible truth of sociopaths, and their general glibness, they are perfectly capable of rapidly re-orienting their justification to make it more believable to the victims. For another example, if you believe a highly intelligent hacker who gets caught going after US Government systems was there looking for evidence of space aliens – you’re being played. He wants you to think he’s a lot dumber and a lot crazier than he is – now that he’s been caught. He could see that the “I was just curious, didn’t mean to hurt anything” angle hasn’t been working so well lately, so he’s going to try the slightly goofy conspiracy nut + aspy angle. After all, the Aspy angle worked great for Lamo.
They’re sociopaths, they’re not stupid. In fact they’re smarter than average, and they’re amoral (or close to it) and highly manipulative.
A note: Originally I split the use of Chelsea Manning’s first name, but thanks to Rob Grigjanis@#1, I understand that wasn’t the right way to do it, so I have adjusted the text.
A note: because I am writing a historical narrative, I refer to Manning before he disclosed his interest in transitioning as “Bradley” and “Chelsea” afterward. I don’t know if that’s the right way to do it, and if someone tells me otherwise, I may edit the use of names.
 Glenn Greenwald at Salon: The Worsening Journalistic Disgrace at WIRED
(formerly)Firedoglake: Bradley Manning / Wikileaks Timeline
Wikipedia: The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy
LA Times: ‘The Last Hacker’ He Called Himself ‘Dark Dante’ His Compulsion Led Him to Secret Files and Eventually The Bar of Justice. Kudos to LA Times for recognizing the obssessive/compulsive nature of some hackers.
New York Times: Dismissal of Internet Security Guru Adds Fuel to Debate (Farmer was fired from Sun for releasing Satan. Mostly because, as an employee of a tech company, Satan would have been Sun’s proprietary software.)
 Kurt Rudder: Julian Assange, the Cypherpunk Revolutionary
 The Verge: Early Cypherpunk in Fact and Fiction
 Snopes: Julian Siezer
(* Per DSM IV sociopathy is a “personality disorder” known as “antisocial personality disorder” that demonstrates characteristics including an inability to get along with others, a lack of concern for social mores or rules, and violation of the rights of others. I am unconvinced that there is such a “disorder” but there are certainly people who exhibit those traits. For the sake of brevity I will refer to people exhibiting those traits, and related traits, as “sociopathic.” I want to be clear, however, that I am unconvinced, as the American Psychological Association appears to be, that there is a specific “disorder” that causes these behaviors. Some may be purely learned and some may be a result of neurochemistry or neurochemical over-learning. We can argue about this topic in a separate posting if any of you think it’s worth digging into. For the sake of this posting, I think we can use the term without my having to go to lengths to hedge my words skeptically.)
(** See: Argument Clinic: Linguistic Nihilism)
(*** You will also attract sociopaths, or people who want to role-play sociopaths, *ahem*, in some online games like Grand Theft Auto 5, or EVE. Note: I am not saying that these games create sociopaths, rather that these games were created as playgrounds for sociopaths. There are plenty of other games that promote guild/cooperative behavior and positive online interaction. But there are some games that specifically advertise that they implement a moral vacuum, and – surprise! You get more extreme and antisocial behaviors.)
(**** Some of us wind up shelving interesting work we were doing in massively reliable distributed systems and spending our lives working on security, instead. Security’s been interesting and lucrative but it’s not what I ever expected or wanted to be doing.)
(***** Computer security pioneer Willis Ware, at SRI, had the idea that hackers could be “reformed” but after his experience with Mitnick he concluded that there was sometimes an obsessive component that made it impossible to get them to stop. Since then there have been others, including me, who feel that way.)
(****** And with the 2016 “Russian Hackers”)
(******* Poulsen and Justin Peterson “Agent Steal” took over phone systems in the LA area so thoroughly that they ran a scam where, whenever some radio station was doing a “dial in award” they would manipulate the number so they were the only people who could dial in. Very clever. But this was not a quick hit; it was a pattern of remorseless criminal activity – not “curiousity” or “exploring”)
(******** Farmer and my old friend Wietse Venema wrote a vulnerability assessment tool called “Satan” that automated much of the recon work that a hacker would do. Chris Klaus – also a hacker-turned-entrepreneur – wrote a similar tool called ISS Scanner a little later. Vulnerability assessment tools were the original “dual use technology” in computer security and that has always caused some debate. Farmer’s choice of the name “Satan” provoked a news flurry because christians are socialized to get uncomfortable when they hear that name.)