After 10 Years in Tech Isolation, I’m Now Outsider to Things I Once Had Mastered
The world isn’t the way I remember it, and certainly not the way I left it back when I was arrested in 2009 for installing botnets and commercial remote access programs on a handful of sensitive clinic systems, which included a critical SCADA system.
That was how I became the first person in recent United States history to be convicted for corrupting industrial control systems. It was such a long time ago, but in my mind it only feels like yesterday.
You have to understand what it means to be a prisoner in the States. There are currently somewhere around 2.3 million people incarcerated in the Land of the Free, and Internet access is not exactly an amenity provided by the Bureau of Prisons.
No Access to Current Information
Access to current information is restricted to approved newspapers and magazine publications and television. Most inmates have computer access which uses a specialized access control program that allows them to email approved contacts for .05 cents a minute. However, having access to the public by use of the inmate messaging system was not a privilege I had. Being a hacker in federal prison isn’t all that great.
In the summer of 2011, I was appealing my sentence. I had no affordable way to contact my attorney, so I worked out a deal with another inmate to let me use his computer, so I could send and receive emails.
Eventually it caught up with me. The inmate was apprehended by the prisons’ Special Investigative Services (SIS) about the flurry of recent activity from his inmate messaging account. The SIS brought my name up, knowing that I was the one behind the recent activity. He not only played dumb, but told the SIS that he had no idea I was using his account, that I must have hacked into it.
I was then detained for 13 months in a maximum security administrative segregation unit without due process, while the case was referred to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Some people refer to these facilities as “Black Sites” because they are cut off from the media, visitors, and lawyers so that what happens in there, stays in there. Interestingly enough, the Seagoville Federal Correctional Institution was once a Japanese internment camp.
That’s three showers a week. 23/5 confinement to an 8X10 cell without air conditioning, a fan, or adequate ventilation. That summer the temperature inside my cell reached 125 degrees Fahrenheit. With no evidence to support the inmates’ accusation, I was supposed to be released back into the general population. But to make a long story short, that didn’t happen.
Could you imagine now having no access to current information for over a year? That would be the least of your worries if you were confined to where I was.
No Longer in Control
In the aftermath of serving a lengthy prison sentence, I witnessed first-hand just how much technology has evolved, and it felt like stepping out of a time-machine. I had been an exile in time, excommunicado from the evolution of new technologies and how our global society has evolved with it.
As a hacker, I was the founder and leader of the hacker group known as the Electronik Tribulation Army. I used to stay parallel to the latest gadgets, exploits, and socio-technological trends.
I used to reverse engineer malware, perform incident responses, and hack pretty much anything left unattended. I read about these technological advancements in newspapers and magazines while I served my sentence, but when it comes down to it, I am now a foreigner, an outsider to the very things I once had mastered. To say that the teacher has now become the student is quite the understatement.
Recently, I was given a new Dell Inspiron laptop. Fresh out of its packaging it feels and looks like a familiar friend to me. But as soon as I booted it up, I was greeted with Windows 10, my new enemy. It only seems like yesterday that the Windows 7 beta was just released. Windows 10 is confusing and weird to me. It has a new file system and I’m not even the slightest curious about how it works. I just want my Windows XP back with my dual boot option of Ubuntu Linux and Backtrack 3.
The only solution to making me happy again would seem to download Ubuntu, mount it to a USB thumb drive, and get it installed. Had I known that Windows 10 doesn’t utilize BIOS, but has replaced it with UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface), which is a secure boot option that validates programs before giving them permission to run, I wouldn’t have wasted two more days of my life trying to install my favorite operating system.
Windows has seized control. Point being: I am no longer in control, and I hate it. I can spend hours on Google troubleshooting through this frustrating dilemma, and still get nowhere. I have to walk away every time, defeated.
A New Norm
Other things similarly have changed since I was incarcerated. I had to ask my twelve-year-old daughter what a hashtag was. That was pretty embarrassing. “Aren’t you supposed to be a hacker or something?,” she told me, sending a final blow to my dying ego.
So many things have changed since I’ve exited this proverbial time machine. For example, back in my day being a hacker for hire was considered a taboo. It was dangerous territory. Now it seems that every hacker is for hire to the extent that being a hacker has become a kind of norm, for the good and bad. Bug bounties have become a legitimate and legal source of income for many, as companies grant permission to hackers to test the integrity of their networks for large sums of money.
Hackers are even eloquently glorified in Hollywood films, books, and video games. Many hackers such as “Mr. Robot” on the USA television network are even depicted as heroes instead of the cliche cyber villain. Governments around the globe are arming themselves with digital pirates, cyber soldiers, and saboteurs.
The proliferation of destructive cyberweapons has become commonplace. It’s become the new way of things. As I probe around the web and observe this new generation of hackers, I see individuals that have lost touch with the true spirit of hacking. A brood that is motivated by greed, revenge, and anger. Harmless curiosity has become a thing of the past.
A World I no Longer Feel Connected to
While I remained nostalgic for the familiar things of the past, the world was moving forward in leaps and bounds. Here are some of the things I observed from outside this exciting new world.
Bitcoin, the first cryptocurrency was introduced to the world (I still am uncertain how to obtain Bitcoins or how to use them).
Smartphones appeared in 2007 but started to replace flip phones in 2009. I am pretty savvy with my Samsung Galaxy A10e. However, I can’t figure out how to root it to save my life. I remember the first time I saw a smartphone advertised on television. “That’s the stupidest thing ever!,” I yelled at the TV. “Who’d want to put their greasy fingers all over a screen like that?” Apparently, everybody. Including me.
President Obama signed an executive order outlining emergency control of the Internet, and thus the Internet kill switch was born. That’s a pretty big deal.
End-to-end encrypted communication popularized in the wake of the Arab Spring as social awareness began to evolve towards using tools like Tor and encrypted communication platforms for maintaining Internet anonymity.
The social networking website Myspace plunged into the great abyss, effectively ending the reign of profile building creativity as we know it. Utilitarianism seems to be the default everywhere nowadays.
Banking trojans became an epidemic. ZeuS. SpyEye. BlackHole and BackSwap to name a few. The availability of IPv4 addresses quickly depleted as more devices were connecting to the Internet. It was the end of the world as we knew it.
Iraqi insurgents hacked Predator drone feeds using SkyGrabber, an off-the-shelf software. The WikiLeaks movement exploded after a large cache of sensitive state department cables had been leaked by Pfc. Chelsea Manning. The hacker group Anonymous became the hammer and war cry in support of that new revolution.
The hacker group known as Lulz Sec emerged during a time of revolution, social unrest, and a growing distrust of the U.S. government, the justice system, and economic inequality. This elite splinter group comprised of members from Anonymous began performing impressive sophisticated cyber attacks on high profile targets, embarrassing U.S. law enforcement.
Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency (NSA) contractor-turned whistleblower, leaked between 9,000 and 10,000 top-secret NSA documents to journalists, exposing a massive spying program called Prism, effectively ending the NSA’s carte blanche operation. Congressional nightmare. Laws were passed. Some people got fired. The U.S. government is still spying. It always will.
Stuxnet happened. Biggest, baddest computer virus ever. Cripples Iranian nuclear centrifuges, then decided to start spreading elsewhere.
Big advertisers are using metadata to collect and map any given users’ Internet behaviors for content marketing purposes. I, too, used to steal users’ data. But it was a crime when I did it. Perhaps if I had sent them an ad or two it would have been less illegal?
Facebook and Google have become so ingrained in the everyday activities of web users that apps and services unrelated to them now feature options to login or register using your Google or Facebook credentials.
Smarthomes and smart cars are gaining popularity. With all the interconnected devices wirelessly connected into a single command and control device, it’s a hackers field day for sure. Smartwatches and smart rings? Seriously?
Net Neutrality began in the U.S. as the fight to treat all Internet traffic across all devices with equality Backtrack is discontinued. Kali Linux has taken center stage, even though they’re basically one and the same.
A Hologram of the rapper icon Tupac Shakur appeared at a Coachella concert.
Augmented Reality entered the scene with Google Glass. But due to privacy concerns and the hefty price tag, the Glass quickly is discontinued.
Virtual Reality became affordable to the everyday consumer, conveniently interfacing with smartphones and video game consoles.
Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa may have been a witness to a murder. A judge ordered Amazon to hand over the recordings. Yes, always listening. Always recording.
Drones became very popular. From toys to commercial drones to police drones.
Ransomware is resurrected from the past. Criminal hackers began swarming computer users with extortion and corrupting personal data on a vendetta to get rich fast.
Artificial Intelligence has made a quantum leap. I watched a video on Youtube of Will Smith trying to put the moves on a robot named Sophia.
Government spooks started openly attending the annual hacker conventions Black Hat and DefCon held in Las Vegas in an effort to recruit hackers to secure cyberspace.
Somewhere in the cacophony of critical changes HTML5 happened.
Holograms. Smarthomes. Self-parking cars. Drones. Cryptocurrency. Metadata. Virtual weapons. An Internet kill switch? I stepped out of my time machine into a world I no longer feel connected to.
An Uncertain Future
For me, I stepped out into an uncertain future. I don’t really see meaningful human interaction anymore. I see a society that is impossibly distracted by likes and selfies, smartphones, and similar technologies, and I often find it frustrating to find my place in the midst of this new interconnected world simply because I was not there to naturally evolve with it.
I was somewhere outside of time, on the other side of the looking glass. Waiting. Counting fractions of what felt like forever, for when I would be released back into society again. Only to discover a world I do not know.
Written by Jesse McGraw aka GhostExodus
Edited by Ana Alexandre
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