Sex, Drugs, and the Biggest Cybercrime of All Time

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Only 25 years old, with little more than a high school education, Albert had created the perfect bubble, a hermetically sealed moral universe in which he made the rules and controlled all the variables — and the only code that mattered was the loyalty of his inner circle. He even had an insurance policy, one designed to keep him a step ahead of the federal agents charged with tracking cybercrime: For the past four years, Albert had been working as an informant for the Secret Service, helping federal agents to identify and bust other rogue hackers. His double life as a snitch gave him an inside look at how the feds try to safeguard the nation's computer data — and reinforced his own sense of superiority. "Psychologically," his sister later told a judge, "it was feeding an obsession that in the end would become my brother's downfall."

But as Albert stood in his South Beach hotel room in March 2007, getting caught was the furthest thing from his mind. The coding work complete, he briskly snapped his laptop shut and hustled his friends down to the Loews' marble-floored lobby, where, acting as sober as possible, he settled their $17,000 bill for the weekend, paying mostly in twenties. Knowing it would take a while to count that much cash, the hotel manager ordered a round of frozen daiquiris for the gentlemen. For now, as the three friends sipped their drinks and hypnotically watched their stacks of cash being counted right in front of them, Albert felt untouchable.

When Albert Gonzalez was 12, he bought a computer with the allowance he had saved up working for his father, a landscaper. At first, his new hobby seemed a harmless distraction: He played video games — car racing and wrestling, mostly — and spent hours taking the computer apart and putting it back together. He even set up computers for other families in his working-class neighborhood of Miami, where most of the residents, like Albert's father, were first-generation immigrants from Cuba. But Albert's fascination soon turned into a fixation. "It was already like an obsessive vice," his mother, Maria, would later tell a judge. By the time he entered South Miami Senior High, the once-outgoing Albert had turned isolated and untalkative, his grades plummeting as he neglected his homework in favor of the huge programming textbook he had bought. Maria begged her son to see a psychologist.

"No," Albert told her. "I am not crazy."

"You don't have to be crazy to go to a psychologist," his mother pleaded, but Albert was unmoved. "If you take me, I'm not going to talk," he warned. "I'm just going to stay quiet." When she moved the computer to his sister's room, Albert simply snuck in during the night to log on to chat rooms devoted to computer programming. Albert's father, who had fled Cuba in the 1970s on a homemade raft, took more drastic action: Enlisting the help of some policemen friends, he staged a fake arrest of Albert, trying to scare his son into returning to reality.

That didn't work either. Instead, Albert escaped further into the solace of the world of programming chat rooms — where he called himself "soupnazi," after the grumpy Seinfeld restaurateur. Before long, he discovered Internet Relay Chat, a web forum popular with hackers who discussed the how-tos of breaching Internet security at its highest levels. He had stumbled across a community that shared not just his computer obsession but also his caustic humor and profound alienation in a way his real-life peers didn't get. Albert and his online friends spent hours swapping tips on hacking, debating their favorite bands and trading booger jokes. By the time he graduated high school, in 1999, Albert had already hacked into the websites of NASA and the government of India — cyberfeats that had prompted visits by Miami detectives and the FBI, who warned him to cut it out.

At this point, Albert wasn't trying to cash in on his skills as a hacker; he simply relished the intellectual puzzle of network security, the powerful rush of picking the locks of high-tech vaults. It wasn't about stealing anything — it was more the gloating rights, about showing the straight-world programmers that he was better and smarter than them. But Albert wasn't just a typical misfit hacker. He was also that rarest of computer geeks: one who could actually relate to other human beings. He was the perfect fusion of the dorky and the suave — the easygoing charm of George Clooney combined with the tech-savvy drive of Steve Jobs. With his good looks and smooth confidence, Albert was never at a loss for female company. And with the guys, he was always the man with the plan. "Albert's an alpha," says a close friend who met Albert online. "If you're all sitting around doing nothing, he's the one who picks a direction and goes, and everyone goes with him."

One night in 1999, a few months after graduating from high school, he decided to drive three hours from Miami to Melbourne, Florida, to meet one of his online friends, a coding whiz who went by the chat-room handle "jimjones." Stephen Watt was a gangly, high-strung, seven-foot-tall senior — only 16 years old, he had skipped a grade — with a 4.37 GPA and few friends. It was past midnight when Albert's headlights finally appeared in the driveway, where Stephen met him for fear of waking his conservative parents. The boys snuck through the house and into Stephen's room, where Albert promptly produced a homemade bong. "No, thanks, I'm good," Stephen mumbled; he had never tried drugs before. They went on to have the best weekend ever, driving aimlessly around town, hanging at the mall, talking computers. A favorite topic was their shared loathing of "white hat" hackers, who used their computer expertise to help businesses find and fix network vulnerabilities. White hats ruined all the fun for "black hat" pranksters, and Stephen — who was as histrionic as Albert was laid-back — could rant for hours about the evils of white-hat sellout phonies.

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