Inside a state-sponsored U.S. cyber warrior's secret universe
Much of the world is just learning that every major industrialized nation has a state-sponsored cyber army—though many of the groups, including team USA, have been around for decades.
I’ve met a few cyber warriors. As you might imagine, they can’t talk much about their duties. But if you work shoulder to shoulder with them long enough, certain patterns emerge. For starters, there are a lot of them. They are well armed with cyber weaponry, and they’re allowed to experiment and hack in ways that, as we all now know, might be considered illegal in some circles.
I’ve been a longtime friend to one cyber warrior. On condition of anonymity, he agreed to be interviewed about what he does for a living and allowed me to record our conversation on a device he controlled, from which I transcribed our conversation. I was able to ask clarifying questions the next day.
We met in person in my boat off the coast of Florida, which might sound very clandestine, except that our primary goal was to catch some fish. It’s interesting to note that he did not want me to contact him by email or phone during the months leading up to this interview or for a few months after, even though what he revealed does not disclose any national security secrets. The following is an edited version of our conversation. Certain inconsequential details have been altered to protect his identity.
Grimes: Describe yourself and your occupation.
Cyber warrior: Middle-aged, white male, not married. Somewhat smart. Music lover. Lifetime hacker of all things. Currently working on behalf of armed services to break into other countries’ computer systems.
Grimes: What is your background? How did you learn to hack?
Cyber warrior: I got into computers fairly early in my life, though I grew up in a foreign country. My dad split when I was young, and my mom worked a lot. I got into computers by visiting one of the few Radio Shacks near my neighborhood. The sales guy hated me at first because I was always on their computers, but after I taught him a few things, we became good friends for years. I realized I had an aptitude for computers ... that most of the adults around me did not have. By the time I was 15, I had dropped out of school (it wasn’t as big of a deal in the country I was in, as it is in most developed countries), and I was working a full-time job as the head IT guy at a federal hospital.
I was hacking everything. I hacked their systems, which wasn’t too much of a problem because I was already the head IT guy. They had lost some of the admin passwords to the network and other computer systems, so I had to use my hacking skills to reclaim those systems. I hacked everything: door locks, Master locks, burglar alarms—anything. For a while, I thought I was a master spy and thief, even though I never stole anything. I would spend all my earnings on buying security systems, install them in my house, then spend all my time trying to bypass them without getting caught. I got pretty good, and soon I was breaking into any building I liked at night. I never got caught, although I did have to run from security guards a few times.
Grimes: What did you like hacking the most: security systems or computer systems?
Cyber warrior: Actually, I loved hacking airwaves the most.
Grimes: You mean 802.x stuff?
Cyber warrior: How cute. How quaint. No, I liked hacking everything that lives in the sky. Computer wireless networks are such a small part of the spectrum. I bought literally dozens of antennas, of all sizes, from small handheld stuff to multi-meter-long, steel antennas. I put them all in a storage shed I rented. I put the antennas up on the roof. I don’t know how I didn’t get in trouble or why the storage shed people didn’t tell me to remove the antennas. I had to learn about electricity, soldering, and power generation. I had dozens of stacked computers. It was my own little cloud, way back when. I would listen for all the frequencies I could. I was next to an airbase and I captured everything I could.
Back then a lot more was open on the airwaves than today. But even the encrypted stuff wasn’t that hard to figure out. I would order the same manuals as the equipment they were using and learn about backdoors in their equipment. I could readily break into most of their equipment, including their high-security telephone system. It was fun and heady stuff. I was maybe 16 or 17 then. I was living and sleeping in the shed more than at my home.
One day I started to see strange cars show up: black cars and trucks, with government markings, like out of movie. They cut the lock off my shed and came in the door. My loft was up near the rafters, so I scooted over into the next storage area, climbed down, and went out the side door at the far end of the shed area. I walked off into desert and never went back. I must have left $100,000 worth of computers, radio equipment, and oscilloscopes. To this day, I don’t know what happened or would have happened had I stayed—probably not as much as I was worried about.
Grimes: Then what did you do?
Cyber warrior: My mom got married to my stepdad, and we moved back to the States. I was able to get a computer network admin job pretty quickly. Instead of hacking everything, I started to build operating systems. I’m a big fan of open source, and I joined one of the distros. I wrote laptop drivers for a long time and started writing defensive tools. That evolved into hacking tools, including early fuzzers.
Eventually I got hired by a few of the big penetration-testing companies. I found out that I was one of the elite, even in a group of elites. Most of those I met were using tools they found on the Internet or by the companies that hired us, but all that code was so [messed up]. I started writing all my own tools. I didn’t trust any of the hacking tools that most penetration testers rely on. I loved to hack and break into to things, but to be honest, it was pretty boring. Everyone can break into everywhere—so I made it a game. I would only break in using tools that I built, and I would only consider it a success if none of my probes or attacks ended up in a firewall or other log. That at least made it more challenging.
Next: The move into cyber warfare