“The Hacker life is one of capability and resourcefulness, trying to make the world, or at least the things you bought, fit your needs. It’s definitely not for people who don’t like to learn new things or who give up easily. There’s a lot of frustration and a lot of living in me-world where I don’t even hear people talking to me half the time.”

Born to Hack

“I’ve been a hacker since I first hacked the progesterone in my mother to stay an extra 3 weeks in the uterus for free,” she jokes with me, smiling and completely at ease in the interview. “From there my love of hacking only grew as I did. Whether it was picking the gate lowering thingy on the crib or DoSing the baby monitor with relentless screams day and night, I just couldn’t let anything go unhacked.”

She says in elementary school she hacked the spelling test system and got a perfect grade in spelling. She figured out the teacher’s pattern of how she randomized the words for the test. At home she wrote out the complete test sheet and hid it in her desk. At the end of the exam, she switched out the one she took with the perfect exam sheet in her desk. And she got a perfect grade each week.

“I’ve never told anyone that before,” she says wistfully before her eyes sparkle and she continues with a smirk. “But if you’re quoting me, maybe I should say something like, hey kids, believe me when I say I was really only cheating myself. Because you have no idea how often I wish now that I spent more time at home memorizing my spelling lists. And I can assure you, I’ve never cheated on another spelling test ever again since elementary school.”

Gateway Skills

It’s clear that hacking had always been a big part of her life. She says she went through it all from phreaking payphones to reading the insecure sendmail spools of the people that wronged her horribly, or were on the same e-mail server as her.

I ask and yes, she was the quintessential teenage hacker. And she says it only got worse from there.

“You see hacking is a gateway skill,” she says with a laugh. “One day in high school, I went to a party where some of the kids were doing social engineering. I tried it. And I was hooked. That’s why the authorities try so hard to discourage hackers and hacking because it’s a slippery slope. There’s always another skill you need to have.”

She went from social engineering to lock picking because, as she says, “In this world a girl should always know how to open locks.”

Then she got interested in learning scripting and programming although she’s quick to admit that she hates programming now and avoids it as much as possible. “Scripting is about getting something to work but programming feels like going to work.”

At some point she says that she got this temporary interest in robotics. First it was scripting movements and tactics for virtual robot fights and then she bought one that was known to be hackable and made it move around the way she wanted it to. She spent a lot of time figuring out how far she could push it, even adding sensors and extra batteries. This got her into learning how circuits work and how to solder. Once she could solder she found a whole world of gadget kits like TV jammers and WiFi scanners that she could make to exert her will over her physical environment.

“I think it was around the time I read ‘Being a Hacker‘ and the whole take control of the world around you really resonated with me,” she says seriously. “Anything can be hacked, even ourselves.”

When she wasn’t going to school, working part-time at the local cinema, or making gadgets, she started thinking about hacking herself. “I spent a lot of my time trying to figure out how people think and why. This got me to hack around with learning techniques, memory, and manipulation tricks.”

Hacking High School

She says social engineering opened her eyes to how the world uses manipulation techniques in everything from politics to advertising to dating. Because of that she says she didn’t really date until she was in college. She says she was motivated to develop her S.E. skills to get out of trouble at school.

“I skipped a lot of classes because I would get caught up in some project or some drama so I always had to invent new ways to avoid getting caught or getting in trouble when caught. Social engineering taught me to plan way ahead with multiple, extensive stories, documents, reasons, and planted props.”

She laughs to herself as she reflects on the idea.

“I put props under and around the school grounds like a key ring with some old keys, a compact vanity mirror, a hair clip, a lipstick tube, and other stuff that wouldn’t fall apart if it got wet. Then if I ever got caught coming or going, I could say I lost it when some kids knocked into me or something and I was looking for it. If a teacher ever challenged me, I’d insist to go look for it and then make them feel bad when I found it because they doubted me. My senior year—I kept a copy of a report in my car and some old notebooks that I wrote course titles on so I could use the “good student forgot notebook excuse”.

But it wasn’t until she decided to hack school that things went from getting out of trouble to preemptively avoiding it.

“Once I realized I was stuck in the system until I graduated I decided that what I needed to do was hack school to get out early. I basically had to social engineer myself into the perfect student, get good grades, and get recommended for early graduation.”

She stalked her teachers and the administration on social media and got to know their personalities and quirks. She kept good notes on how to mirror each of them in their classes or when they were around. She would use tricks like to repeat part of what they had said every time she was called to answer a question and then continue to answer, or not, in some reference to show similarity to the teacher’s own comments and rants. That made me more likable to them because us humans instinctively feel closer to people who look and act like them.

“I was lucky that all of my teachers were on Instagram, G+, or Facebook and most of the administration were at least on Linked-In. I had so much information on them that I had to be careful not to be too obvious about my engineered coincidences. If any of you kids out there ever try this, be warned that’s it’s more work than actually studying.”

She had been an average student by grades only. So when she began using manipulation tactics to build trust and likability, her grades suddenly improved and she no longer had to work so hard to excuse her absences. She further improved her grades by scouring the temp directories on the classroom computers where the teachers left remnants of documents previously opened. But that took some extra work.

“The faculty used the same computers we did but they kept everything on USB keys. So no temp files on the drive. The trick was to infect the computers with malware from USB keys I brought from home. I got info and tools from Packet Storm on how to do it and I just kept reinfecting the computers again and again until the school blocked all the USB ports. Then I got the temp files back on the hard drives.”

But it wasn’t until she found that the faculty printer had no login or password that she found her golden ticket to nearly all of the exams.

But she gets defensive when anyone calls it cheating.

“Having the exam just made sure I memorized what they wanted me to. I still had to write the essays and think through the problems. I still had to do the actual memorizing. That’s really different then a crib sheet where you do no work at all.”

Career

Social engineering and practical manipulation worked so well for her that she continued doing so through college and into her first job interview.

She studied information security at a mid-ranking college—but she aimed for a researcher position at a major security consultancy. “Me and like a thousand others all had the same idea to work there after college. I had decent grades but I just didn’t have the pedigree to get in the door. So I had to hack my way in.”

She scoured online for the resumes of people who had already been hired there to copy their style and know what keywords and key habits were sought. She dove into the company head-first and looked for their clients, the type of personalities they dealt with, and the technologies they used.

“But for this to work you need to be able to choose who you will interview with,” she explains. “You really need to stalk the managers online until you know exactly how and where to meet them. Then select the one you’ve got the best chances with and arrange, what would be for them, a chance meeting. Get them to ask you for the interview. It’s hard work. People like to think it’s magic but only in the way a magician might practice a trick a thousand times before doing it in a show. I researched and rehearsed answers for weeks before I was ready to accidentally meet them.”

She got the job and worked there for three years before she met a man from a movie production company. He wrote to the research department looking for advice about the Darknet for a documentary. She happened to be on first level support for the department that week so she helped him. He could tell she really knew how to find things online so he offered her a job consulting on a movie. But she declined since he was a client of the firm and she felt loyal to her employer.

Fame

“Fame makes me think of that depressing movie with all those kids at the music and art school in New York who have all these terrible consequences just to try to be famous. Then again, that’s pretty much what fame is.”

She says she social engineered herself off a cliff. It all started when she hacked the home computer of a competitor at the request of a manager. She got the information he wanted and thought it was done. A few months later, she’s brought up in front of an ethics board and fired. She said the manager got caught with information he shouldn’t have and he said he didn’t know where she got it from. She says it was a blindside and the committee didn’t even ask her what happened. She was just let go and walked out the door. She had to hear about it from friends at the firm to know what happened.

“I went through this awful, dark time after being fired. It was such a shock. I felt so cheated and angry. I probably would have done something really bad for revenge and I wanted to, I planned and stalked and was so going to. Then one night I saw the documentary on TV that I helped that guy research and decided to call him. He hired me right then and there. If that didn’t happen, I might have done something regrettable.”

Her new job had her using her doxxing skills to her full potential. She stalked professionally now, only it was called researching. At first she just lined up interviews and contacts for the studio, but soon she started advising the director on the realities of hacking for shows. She shined.

She started writing about hacking to supplement the documentaries and eventually to make scripts for in-depth reports. She found herself meeting actors and actresses who were fascinated with her stories. They took her with them to shoots and insisted she help bring authenticity to their movies. Without her even knowing it, her fame grew. And without ever having walked into a single security or hacking conference, she became renowned as a hacker. Which is how she became a target.

Trouble

She awoke one morning to find a dozen policemen in her apartment with assault rifles. She had been swatted. And it wasn’t the last time. She would get swatted—two more times—at work and while visiting her parents at their house. Then came the nasty text messages with abusive comments and death threats. She said it was terrifying and she had to change accounts and her phone number. Then she had to wipe herself the best she could off the net. She even had to move to a new place, costing her a lot of money to break her lease.

All of it culminated in a knock on her door a couple months after it all started. It was the FBI.

“The mix of all the attention I was getting and obviously some backroom deals re-opened an old wound. My old employer apparently continued their competitor hacking and they were now caught and getting sued. So they dragged me into it.”

They took her home computer and even brought in a forensics team to inspect her work systems. They took her phone too.

The FBI took her recent account changes, phone changes, and apartment move as evidence of her guilt. She was trying to hide something. She went through weeks of stress and used up all her vacation and sick time just going between her lawyer’s office and the courthouse.

“The problem was that I practice good OpSec. I read the OSSTMM. I know how to reduce my attack surface. So I encrypted my phone and my computers were always clean. I had a few encrypted files but none of that ever got mentioned. They asked me to unlock my phone which was something I refused to do. I didn’t even have that phone when the supposed hacks occurred and I proved it. I felt violated to hand over all my texts and pictures for a public court record when I knew I was not the guilty person they were looking for.”

She didn’t have to hold out very long though. It turned out that her getting fired from that job back then was good luck. It established for the courts that she could have had nothing to do with the hacking. She was excused from all of it since neither side of the case trusted her to testify.

“The last thing the FBI agent said to me was that they knew I was a hacker and that they would be watching me. This one guy who first showed up to take my computers said he would send a weekly forensics team to check my systems. My lawyer offered if I stopped writing about hacking and kept out of the spotlight that they would leave me alone. So I agreed. Call it selling out—but you have no idea what a pain in the ass it is to be under surveillance. It makes you look guilty to everyone and keeps you on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It sucks.”

She still consults on television shows and movies and she admits that she still has the habit to use her manipulation skills, even if it’s just to cut to the front of the line at the coffee shop.

“All you need is an excuse,” she says with a light laugh. “Even if you just ask to cut because you need to pay for your coffee, most people will just let you cut. But you need to always give a reason for it to work.”

Since then she’s led an even more quiet life and avoided the red carpets, the writing, the publicity, and the police. But it hasn’t really changed her.

“Hacking is this thing I am,” she says when asked if she has any last comments. “It’s how my brain works. It’s how I learn. I can’t stop it. Some people can sing, some can fight, and I hack.”

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