In his own words: Confessions of a cyber warrior

A longtime friend working as a cyber warrior under contract to the U.S. government provides a glimpse of the front lines

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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.

Grimes: How did you get into cyber warfare?

Cyber warrior: They called me up out of the blue one day -- well, an employment agency on behalf of the other team. They were offering a lot more money, which surprised me, because I had heard that the guys working on behalf of the feds made a lot less than we did. Not true -- it's certainly not true anymore, if you're any good.

I had to take a few tests. I had a few problems getting hired at first because I literally didn't have a background: no credit, no high school or college transcripts. Even the work I had done was not something you could easily verify. But I scored really well on the tests and I was honest on what I had done in the past. They didn't seem to care that I had hacked our own government years ago or that I smoked pot. I wasn't sure I was going to take the job, but then they showed me the work environment and introduced me to a few future coworkers. I was impressed.

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