THE HACKER NEXT DOOR
TALL AND TAN AND young and lovely . . .
It's Saturday night at Bally's Las Vegas and I follow a woman in black leather—jacket, skirt, boots—down the center of the casino floor. Her hair— also black—is twisted atop her head and held in place with chopsticks. She has on red lipstick and knee-high red polka-dot socks. A portable speaker clipped to her purse plays "The Girl from Ipanema."
The woman—thirty-three years old? thirty-four?—passes tables for blackjack, three-card poker, and craps. Players turn from their chips to the source of the music. Several smile, entreating her to join them, but she continues through a thicket of ringing, whirring slot machines, emerging again in front of the casino elevators.
There's a long line here, perhaps two hundred people, stretching to the end of the hallway and around a corner. Almost everyone is trying to get to the pool party a floor below or to the dozen other parties in Bally's Skyview rooms twenty-five floors above. Making sure no one cuts are two huge bouncers with crossed arms and dark red badges that say GOON.
The woman does not join the line. She smiles at the bouncers. The bouncers do not smile at her. They do recognize her, however.
The woman is a hacker. The bouncers are also hackers. And so are the two hundred people in line, and the several thousand already partying above or below.
In fact, there are close to twenty thousand hackers in Vegas this weekend. "Access approved," the bouncers say to the woman. They part—special treatment—and the woman passes between them: first in line.
The next elevator is hers alone.
Or ours. "I'm with her," I tell the bouncers, and squeeze through before they can stop me.
A door opens and the woman and I step in together. "This is crazy," I say. "Is it always this crowded?"
The woman rolls her eyes, seemingly put off that of all the questions I could ask right now, I choose this one.
As it turns out, for the next year my life will largely become a series of such strange questions and the even stranger answers she provides.
* * *
Of all the ways I might have expected to start hanging out with a hacker, perhaps the last was an impromptu playdate for my daughter.
Alien recognized me first. We had met briefly, fifteen years earlier, when I was a senior at Harvard and she was a sophomore at MIT. By chance, we ran into each other again one fall afternoon. Each of us was out with our preschool-age daughter. Amazing—great to see you again! And the girls liked each other. Can we play together? they asked. Please?
We agreed. Our daughters cheered—and then ran off to a set of swings. We chatted casually for a few minutes. Then I asked Alien—not that this was the name I knew her by—what she was working on these days.
"Well . . . ," she said. "Tomorrow morning, I have to break into a bank."
My old acquaintance, I learned, was a professional hacker—or, as she put it to corporate clients, "a penetration tester and digital forensics specialist." When institutions or individuals needed to test their security, either physical or virtual, she and her team were guns for hire. And if you'd already been breached, they'd identify what had been stolen, how, and by whom—plus recover any lost information and try to ensure that the problem wouldn't happen again.
Even with frequent media coverage, hacking is actually dramatically underreported, Alien told me. Only a small fraction of discovered hacks are disclosed to the public. And most hacks are never discovered in the first place.
She knew because, time and again, she or her close associates had either done the hacking or cleaned up after someone else had.