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Adrian Lamo, ‘Homeless Hacker’ Who Turned in Chelsea Manning, Dead at 37

Adrian Lamo, the hacker probably best known for breaking into The New York Times‘s network and for reporting Chelsea Manning‘s theft of classified documents to the FBI, was found dead in a Kansas apartment on Wednesday. Lamo was widely reviled and criticized for turning in Manning, but that chapter of his life eclipsed the profile of a complex individual who taught me quite a bit about security over the years.

Adrian Lamo, in 2006. Source: Wikipedia.

I first met Lamo in 2001 when I was a correspondent for, a now-defunct tech publication that was owned by The Washington Post at the time. A mutual friend introduced us over AOL Instant Messenger, explaining that Lamo had worked out a simple method allowing him to waltz into the networks of some of the world’s largest media companies using nothing more than a Web browser.

The panoply of alternate nicknames he used on instant messenger in those days shed light on a personality not easily grasped: Protagonist, Bitter Geek, AmINotMerciful, Unperceived, Mythos, Arcane, truefaith, FugitiveGame.

In this, as in so many other ways, Lamo was a study in contradictions: Unlike most other hackers who break into online networks without permission, he didn’t try to hide behind the anonymity of screen names or Internet relay chat networks.

By the time I met him, Adrian had already earned the nickname “the homeless hacker” because he had no fixed address, and found shelter most evenings in abandoned buildings or on friend’s couches. He launched the bulk of his missions from Internet cafes or through the nearest available dial-up connections, using an old Toshiba laptop that was missing seven keys. His method was the same in every case: find security holes; offer to fix them; refuse payment in exchange for help; wait until hole is patched; alert the media.

Lamo had previously hacked into the likes of AOL Time Warner, ComcastMCI Worldcom, Microsoft, SBC Communications and Yahoo after discovering that these companies had enabled remote access to their internal networks via Web proxies, a kind of security by obscurity that allowed anyone who knew the proxy’s Internet address and port number to browse internal shares and other network resources of the affected companies.

By 2002, Lamo had taken to calling me on the phone frequently to relate his various exploits, often spoofing his phone number to make it look like the call had come from someplace ominous or important, such as The White House or the FBI. At the time, I wasn’t actively taking any measures to encrypt my online communications, or to suggest that my various sources do likewise. After a few weeks of almost daily phone conversations with Lamo, however, it became abundantly clear that this had been a major oversight.

In February 2002, Lamo told me that he’d found an open proxy on the network of The New York Times that allowed him to browse the newsroom’s corporate intranet. A few days after that conversation, Lamo turned up at’s newsroom (then in Arlington, Va.). Just around the corner was a Kinkos, and Adrian insisted that I follow him to the location so he could get online and show me his discovery firsthand.

While inside the Times’ intranet, he downloaded a copy of the Times’ source list, which included phone numbers and contact information for such household names as Yogi Berra, Warren Beatty, and Robert Redford, as well as high-profile political figures – including Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Lamo also added his own contact information to the file. My exclusive story in Newsbytes about the Times hack was soon picked up by other news outlets.

In August 2003, federal prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for Lamo in connection with the New York Times hack, among other intrusions. The next month, The Washington Post’s attorneys received a letter from the FBI urging them not to destroy any correspondence I might have had with Lamo, and warning that my notes may be subpoenaed.

In response, the Post opted to take my desktop computer at work and place it in storage. We also received a letter from the FBI requesting an interview (that request was summarily denied). In October 2003, the Associated Press ran a story saying the FBI didn’t follow proper procedures when it notified reporters that their notes concerning Lamo might be subpoenaed (the DOJ’s policy was to seek materials from reporters only after all other investigative steps had been exhausted, and then only as a last resort).

In 2004, Lamo pleaded guilty to one felony count of computer crimes against the Times, as well as LexisNexis and Microsoft. He was sentenced to six month’s detention and two years probation, an ordered to pay $65,000 in restitution.

Several months later while attending a formal National Press Foundation dinner at the Washington Hilton, my bulky Palm Treo buzzed in my suit coat pocket, signaling a new incoming email message. The missive was blank save for an unusually large attachment. Normally, I would have ignored such messages as spam, but this one came from a vaguely familiar address: Years before, Lamo had told me he’d devised a method for minting his own .mil email addresses.

The attachment turned out to be the Times’ newsroom source list. The idea of possessing such information was at once overwhelming and terrifying, and for the rest of the evening I felt certain that someone was going to find me out (it didn’t help that I was seated adjacent to a table full of NYT reporters and editors). It was difficult not to stare at the source list and wonder at the possibilities. But ultimately, I decided the right thing to do was to simply delete the email and destroy the file.


Lamo was born in 1981 outside of Boston, Mass. into an educated, bilingual family. Lamo’s parents say from an early age he exhibited an affinity for computers and complex problem solving. In grade school, Lamo cut his teeth on a Commodore64, but his parents soon bought him a more powerful IBM PC when they grasped the extent of his talents.

“Ever since he was very young he has shown a tendency to be a lateral thinker, and any problem you put in front of him with a computer he could solve almost immediately,” Lamo’s mother Mary said in an interview in 2003. “He has a gifted analytical mind and a natural curiosity.”

By the time he got to high school, Lamo had graduated to a laptop computer. During a computer class his junior year, Lamo upstaged his teacher by solving a computer problem the instructor insisted was insurmountable. After an altercation with the teacher, he was expelled. Not long after that incident, Lamo earned his high school equivalency degree and left home for a life on his own.

For many years after that he lived a vagabond’s existence, traveling almost exclusively on foot or by Greyhound bus, favoring the affordable bus line for being the “only remaining form of mass transit that offers some kind of anonymity.” When he wasn’t staying with friends, he passed the night in abandoned buildings or under the stars.

In 1995, Lamo landed contract work at a promising technology upstart called America Online, working on “,” an online forum that catered to the gay and lesbian community. At the time, advertisers paid AOL based on the amount of time visitors spent on the site, and Lamo’s job was to keep people glued to the page, chatting them up for hours at a time.

Ira Wing, a security expert at one of the nation’s largest Internet service providers, met Lamo that year at PlanetOut and the two became fast friends. It wasn’t long before he joined in one of Lamo’s favorite distractions, one that would turn out to be an eerie offshoot of the young hacker’s online proclivities: exploring the labyrinth of California’s underground sewage networks and abandoned mines.

Since then, Lamo kept in touch intermittently, popping in and out of Wing’s life at odd intervals. But Wing proved a trustworthy and loyal friend, and Lamo soon granted him power of attorney over his affairs should he run into legal trouble.

In 2002, Wing registered the domain “,” as a joke. He’d later remark on how prescient a decision that had been.

“Adrian is like a fast moving object that has a heavy affect on anyone’s life he encounters,” Wing told this reporter in 2003. “And then he moves on.”


In 2010, Lamo was contacted via instant message by Chelsea Manning, a transgender Army private who was then known as Bradley Manning. The Army private confided that she’d leaked a classified video of a helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed 12 people (including two Reuters employees) to Wikileaks. Manning also admitted to handing Wikileaks some 260,000 classified diplomatic cables.

Lamo reported the theft to the FBI. In explaining his decision, Lamo told news publications that he was worried the classified data leak could endanger lives.

“He was just grabbing information from where he could get it and trying to leak it,” Mr. Lamo told The Times in 2010.

Manning was later convicted of leaking more than 700,000 government records, and received a 35 year prison sentence. In January 2017, President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence after she’d served seven years of it. In January 2018, Manning filed to run for a Senate seat in Maryland.


The same month he reported Manning to the feds, Lamo told that he’d been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome after being briefly hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. Lamo told Wired that he suspected someone had stolen his backpack, and that paramedics were called when the police responding to reports of the alleged theft observed him acting erratically and perhaps slurring his speech.

Wired later updated the story to note that Lamo’s father had reported him to the Sacramento Sheriff’s office, saying he was worried that his son was over-medicating himself with prescription drugs.

In 2011, Lamo told news outlet Al Jazeera that he was in hiding because he was getting death threats for betraying Manning’s confidence and turning him in to the authorities. In 2013, he told The Guardian that he’d struggled with substance abuse “for a while.”

It’s not yet certain what led to Lamo’s demise. He was found dead in a Wichita apartment on March 14. According to The Wichita Eagle, Lamo had lived in the area for more than a year. The paper quoted local resident Lorraine Murphy, who described herself as a colleague and friend of Lamo’s. When Murphy sent him a message in December 2016 asking him what he was up to, he reportedly replied “homeless in Wichita.”

“Adrian was always homeless or on the verge of it,” Murphy is quoted as saying. “He bounced around a great deal, for no particular reason. He was a believer in the Geographic Cure. Whatever goes wrong in your life, moving will make it better. And he knew people all over the country.”

The Eagle reports that Wichita police found no signs of foul play or anything suspicious about Lamo’s death. A toxicology test was ordered but the results won’t be available for several weeks.


Who Is Afraid of More Spams and Scams?

Security researchers who rely on data included in Web site domain name records to combat spammers and scammers will likely lose access to that information for at least six months starting at the end of May 2018, under a new proposal that seeks to bring the system in line with new European privacy laws. The result, some experts warn, will likely mean more spams and scams landing in your inbox.

On May 25, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) takes effect. The law, enacted by the European Parliament, requires companies to get affirmative consent for any personal information they collect on people within the European Union. Organizations that violate the GDPR could face fines of up to four percent of global annual revenues.

In response, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) — the nonprofit entity that manages the global domain name system — has proposed redacting key bits of personal data from WHOIS, the system for querying databases that store the registered users of domain names and blocks of Internet address ranges (IP addresses).

Under current ICANN rules, domain name registrars should collect and display a variety of data points when someone performs a WHOIS lookup on a given domain, such as the registrant’s name, address, email address and phone number. Most registrars offer a privacy protection service that shields this information from public WHOIS lookups; some registrars charge a nominal fee for this service, while others offer it for free.

But in a bid to help registrars comply with the GDPR, ICANN is moving forward on a plan to remove critical data elements from all public WHOIS records. Under the new system, registrars would collect all the same data points about their customers, yet limit how much of that information is made available via public WHOIS lookups.

The data to be redacted includes the name of the person who registered the domain, as well as their phone number, physical address and email address. The new rules would apply to all domain name registrars globally.

ICANN has proposed creating an “accreditation system” that would vet access to personal data in WHOIS records for several groups, including journalists, security researchers, and law enforcement officials, as well as intellectual property rights holders who routinely use WHOIS records to combat piracy and trademark abuse.

But at an ICANN meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Thursday, ICANN representatives conceded that a proposal for how such a vetting system might work probably would not be ready until December 2018. Assuming ICANN meets that deadline, it could be many months after that before the hundreds of domain registrars around the world take steps to adopt the new measures.

Gregory Mounier, head of outreach at EUROPOL‘s European Cybercrime Center and member of ICANN’s Public Safety Working Group, said the new WHOIS plan could leave security researchers in the lurch — at least in the short run.

“If you don’t have an accreditation system by 25 May then there’s no means for cybersecurity folks to get access to this information,” Mounier told KrebsOnSecurity. “Let’s say you’re monitoring a botnet and have 10.000 domains connected to that and you want to find information about them in the WHOIS records, you won’t be able to do that anymore. It probably won’t be implemented before December 2018 or January 2019, and that may mean security gaps for many months.”

Rod Rasmussen, chair of ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee, said ICANN does not have a history of getting things done before or on set deadlines, meaning it may be well more than six months before researchers and others can get vetted to access personal information in WHOIS data.

Asked for his take on the chances that ICANN and the registrar community might still be designing the vetting system this time next year, Rasmussen said “100 percent.”

“A lot of people who are using this data won’t be able to get access to it, and it’s not going to be pretty,” Rasmussen said. “Once things start going dark it will have a cascading effect. Email deliverability is going to be one issue, and the amount of spam that shows up in peoples’ inboxes will be climbing rapidly because a lot of anti-spam technologies rely on WHOIS for their algorithms.”

As I noted in last month’s story on this topic, WHOIS is probably the single most useful tool we have right now for tracking down cybercrooks and/or for disrupting their operations. On any given day I probably perform 20-30 different WHOIS queries; on days I’ve set aside for deep-dive research, I may run hundreds of WHOIS searches.

WHOIS records are a key way that researchers reach out to Web site owners when their sites are hacked to host phishing pages or to foist malware on visitors. These records also are indispensable for tracking down cybercrime victims, sources and the cybercrooks themselves. I remain extremely concerned about the potential impact of WHOIS records going dark across the board.

There is one last possible “out” that could help registrars temporarily sidestep the new privacy regulations: ICANN board members told attendees at Thursday’s gathering in Puerto Rico that they had asked European regulators for a “forbearance” — basically, permission to be temporarily exempted from the new privacy regulations during the time it takes to draw up and implement a WHOIS accreditation system.

But so far there has been no reply, and several attendees at ICANN’s meeting Thursday observed that European regulators rarely grant such requests.

Some registrars are already moving forward with their own plans on WHOIS privacy. GoDaddy, one of the world’s largest domain registrars, recently began redacting most registrant data from WHOIS records for domains that are queried via third-party tools. And experts say it seems likely that other registrars will follow GoDaddy’s lead before the May 25 GDPR implementation date, if they haven’t already.


Flash, Windows Users: It’s Time to Patch

Adobe and Microsoft each pushed critical security updates to their products today. Adobe’s got a new version of Flash Player available, and Microsoft released 14 updates covering more than 75 vulnerabilities, two of which were publicly disclosed prior to today’s patch release.

The Microsoft updates affect all supported Windows operating systems, as well as all supported versions of Internet Explorer/Edge, Office, Sharepoint and Exchange Server.

All of the critical vulnerabilities from Microsoft are in browsers and browser-related technologies, according to a post from security firm Qualys.

“It is recommended that these be prioritized for workstation-type devices,” wrote Jimmy Graham, director of product management at Qualys. “Any system that accesses the Internet via a browser should be patched.”

The Microsoft vulnerabilities that were publicly disclosed prior to today involve Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 through 2016 editions (CVE-2018-0940) and ASP.NET Core 2.0 (CVE-2018-0808), said Chris Goettl at Ivanti. Microsoft says it has no evidence that attackers have exploited either flaw in active attacks online.

But Goettl says public disclosure means enough information was released publicly for an attacker to get a jump start or potentially to have access to proof-of-concept code making an exploit more likely. “Both of the disclosed vulnerabilities are rated as Important, so not as severe, but the risk of exploit is higher due to the disclosure,” Goettl said.

Microsoft says by default, Windows 10 receives updates automatically, “and for customers running previous versions, we recommend they turn on automatic updates as a best practice.” Microsoft doesn’t make it easy for Windows 10 users to change this setting, but it is possible. For all other Windows OS users, if you’d rather be alerted to new updates when they’re available so you can choose when to install them, there’s a setting for that in Windows Update.

Adobe’s Flash Player update fixes at least two critical bugs in the program. Adobe said it is not aware of any active exploits in the wild against either flaw, but if you’re not using Flash routinely for many sites, you probably want to disable or remove this awfully buggy program.

Just last month Adobe issued a Flash update to fix two vulnerabilities that were being used in active attacks in which merely tricking a victim into viewing a booby-trapped Web site or file could give attackers complete control over the vulnerable machine. It would be one thing if these zero-day flaws in Flash were rare, but this is hardly an isolated occurrence.

Adobe is phasing out Flash entirely by 2020, but most of the major browsers already take steps to hobble Flash. And with good reason: It’s a major security liability. Chrome also bundles Flash, but blocks it from running on all but a handful of popular sites, and then only after user approval.

For Windows users with Mozilla Firefox installed, the browser prompts users to enable Flash on a per-site basis. Through the end of 2017 and into 2018, Microsoft Edge will continue to ask users for permission to run Flash on most sites the first time the site is visited, and will remember the user’s preference on subsequent visits.

The latest standalone version of Flash that addresses these bugs is  for Windows, Mac, Linux and Chrome OS. But most users probably would be better off manually hobbling or removing Flash altogether, since so few sites actually require it still. Disabling Flash in Chrome is simple enough. Paste “chrome://settings/content” into a Chrome browser bar and then select “Flash” from the list of items. By default it should be set to “Ask first” before running Flash, although users also can disable Flash entirely here or whitelist and blacklist specific sites.