Quora Question: How Often Do Criminals Hand Themselves In?

Adrian Lamo
Adrian Lamo is a former computer hacker. Joshua Roberts/Reuters

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Answer from Adrián Lamo, threat analyst & "top 10" hacker.

I surrendered to the U.S. Marshals Service after a week of constructively avoiding the FBI while I negotiated (through my attorney mostly, though at times in joint conference calls) with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York.

(Backstory: In 2002 I had hacked the internal network of The New York Times, and in 2001 I had hacked the Microsoft customer database. In both cases I offered free assistance in securing the vulnerabilities, but The New York Times pressed charges, and Microsoft got on the bandwagon.)

This was a strategic decision—I learned that the FBI was looking for me on a Thursday, and one thing about getting arrested is, you rarely want to have it happen unplanned on a Thursday or Friday. You usually won't wind up getting a bail hearing until Monday or Tuesday (depending on how congested the docket is), which means spending a totally needless weekend in jail.

At the time I learned the FBI was hunting me, the charges against me were sealed. Negotiating with the FBI would have been a waste of time—only the prosecutor can make you a legally binding promise in negotiation generally—so I approached him through counsel with three terms.

1. To learn the nature of the charges against me.
2. To surrender, appear before a judge, post bond and be released all in the same day.
3. To have the FBI called off from following my family around in the meantime—they had almost caused a car accident due to aggressive surveillance.

The prosecutor agreed to my proposal, and I surrendered later in the week (to the U.S. Marshals, not the FBI, depriving them of an early chance to interrogate me while I was still shaken by the whole chain of events).

The net positives were significant. I was able to disclose to the media what was happening first, thus giving me a degree of control over the story. The FBI didn't collect any of my computers (in a tragic accident, my backpack fell off a bridge). And by initiating negotiations while avoiding the FBI, I rebuffed any perception that I was engaged in unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. My bond was set at $250,000, and I was released in the evening on the same day I surrendered.

Everyone I met in lockup at the federal building was very supportive, quite the opposite of the generic perception created by prison movies. Most were Latino, and the fact that I speak Spanish helped. They could tell that I was nervous, and told me not to worry, told jokes and helped me feel that things were going to be OK. I'm eternally grateful to those kind criminals whose names I'll never know.

Mine was a rather unusual case. I'm not representing any of this as legal advice—indeed, the only part I would suggest you emulate is contacting legal counsel (in my case at the Federal Defender's Office) ASAP as soon as you learn you're wanted.

I had always maintained that I didn't believe that trying to be helpful mitigated the fact that I was committing crimes breaking into corporate networks—each time was a roll of the dice.

I'd said before I would take responsibility if it came to that. I was disappointed that the Times and I couldn't work things out like gentlemen, but I understood and understand their choice, and don't fault them for it, any more than I fault the FBI for doing their jobs. We all own our actions in fullness, not just the pleasant aspects of them. I subsequently pleaded guilty and accepted responsibility; the government agreed not to recommend a specific sentence, and I wound up with six months house arrest, two years probation and restitution.

During the time I avoided the FBI, a film crew from Kevin Spacey's TriggerStreet film company was recording the events, up until I stepped through the doors of the courthouse. This eventually became the film Hackers Wanted, which can be found on YouTube.

Mine was very much an unusual case. Turning myself in under those circumstances was an exception for hacker cases, not the rule. The FBI had originally intended to arrest me at the DEF CON hacker conference that year, but was unable to make it happen. In most hacker cases though, they go for the surefire arrest by overwhelming force every time.

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