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40 Greatest Stories

Barrett Brown Is Anonymous

From a tiny Uptown apartment he's organizing a worldwide collective of hackers that brought down HBGary and helped overthrow the government of Tunisia.
By Tim Rogers |
photography by Nikki Loehr
A week before the Michael Isikoff interview, Barrett Brown and I are sitting on the rooftop patio at the Quarter Bar. Or, rather, I am sitting. Brown is pacing like a caged animal, chain-smoking, and drinking a Cape Cod. He likes the Quarter Bar because he doesn’t own a car and he can walk here from his apartment with his Sony Vaio notebook and get work done while he smokes and drinks. The staff knows him.

It’s a weekday, early. McKinney Avenue is beginning to flow with shiny cars headed north. We have the patio to ourselves. Brown is wearing cowboy boots and a blue pin-striped oxford sloppily tucked into blue jeans. He wears the same outfit every day. He owns a dozen identical blue pin-striped oxford shirts. He wears only boots because he hasn’t bothered to learn to tie shoelaces properly. (When Nikki Loehr told me that being Brown’s girlfriend can be exhausting because she must work to keep him on track, citing as one example of Brown’s ADD-powered absent-mindedness his inability to “tie his own shoes,” I thought she was kidding. She wasn’t.)

As Brown paces and recounts some of the highlights he’s amassed in just 29 years, it’s tempting to brand him as a fabulist. He’ll begin an anecdote with “I once had to jump out of a moving cab in Dar es Salaam.” But then he mentions that he went to Preston Hollow Elementary School with George W. Bush’s twin daughters. My mother taught the Bush twins at Preston Hollow. I tell him this, and he remembers my mother.

“I was the poet laureate of Preston Hollow!” he says. In third grade, he tells me, he used a phone in the principal’s office to order a pizza from Domino’s, which he had delivered to his classroom. He wasn’t trying to make trouble. He simply didn’t know there was a rule against ordering pizza. But his English teacher flipped, sent him to the principal’s office, where he was held in a sort of in-school suspension during which he wrote a poem about getting in trouble. “Ask your mother about me,” Brown says.

Karen Lancaster says her son developed a capacity for moral outrage at an early age. “He was furious when he was 6 and found out there was no Santa Claus,” she says.

Later that night, I call my mother, who taught him art. “Do you remember a kid named Barrett Brown from Preston Hollow?”

“Barrett Brown? Oh, my God,” she says, instantly recalling an elementary student she taught more than 20 years ago. “I don’t remember them all. But I remember him. Yes, he was the poet laureate. I don’t have it anymore, but I kept that poem for years.”

Having now had several corroborative conversations like the one with my mother, I am forced to conclude that most of what Brown says is accurate—if not believable.

He grew up comfortably in Highland Park. His father, Robert Brown, hailed from East Texas and came from a family of means. “I made a lot of money when I originally came to Dallas,” Robert says. “I eventually had $50 million in real estate holdings all across the state. But I got caught up like a lot of people did in the ’80s. I was highly leveraged, lost pretty much everything.”

Partly due to the financial strain, Brown’s parents divorced when he was 7. He and his mom shared a room in his grandmother’s house for a few months, until his mom could get on her feet. Karen Lancaster says her son developed a capacity for moral outrage at an early age. “He was furious when he was 6 and found out there was no Santa Claus,” she says. “He wasn’t mad about there not being a Santa. He was upset with me. He said, ‘You lied to me. How could you make up such a story?’”

Lancaster says her son had severe ADD and that the classroom was torture for him. But he read voraciously on his own, diving into Ayn Rand and Hunter S. Thompson while he was still in middle school.

About that time, Brown also began investigating the possibilities of online networks. This was circa 1995, before the internet as we know it today existed. Back then, bulletin board systems ruled, chat rooms with their own phone numbers for dial-up access with a modem. At 13, Brown found a BBS that changed his life. It enabled him to talk to girls. Years later, he would use the experience as grist for an essay in the New York Press.

“Early in our communication,” Brown wrote, “Tracy informed me that I could touch her breasts if I wanted to. I conveyed in turn that this would be to my satisfaction and that I would entertain other proposals of a similar nature. Over the next months, I was able to graduate to second base, to third, and finally to dry humping.”

In high school, at the Episcopal School of Dallas, Brown continued to distinguish himself. Freshman year he and a friend formed the Objectivists Club. “They began their own civil disobedience then, unbeknownst to us,” Lancaster says. “Ayn Rand was an atheist, and here he was in this Episcopal school. They decided not to sing hymns in chapel. So, of course, we got calls about that.”

The following year, he got into trouble for having sex with an ESD girl on a school trip to New York. The administration couldn’t prove that the act had occurred, though, so he was merely given in-school suspension (he passed the time by drawing comic books about World War II). That summer, in 1998, he landed the internship at the Met. In a brief “Meet the Intern” feature in the front of the paper, he was pictured wearing sunglasses. The copy read: “Barrett wears sunglasses indoors. He was a sophomore last year at the Episcopal School of Dallas, but he refuses to return next year. He has earned a reputation as a phlegmy young man for loudly clearing his throat and spitting in editors’ personal trash cans. He claims to have lost his virginity in New York, on Broadway. And last week he wrecked his mom’s Jeep Cherokee. We asked him what he’s learned here at the Met, and Barrett said, ‘How adults really act when they think kids aren’t watching.’ But Barrett’s a smart, hard-working kid, and he’ll always have our highest recommendation.”

His mother saved that clipping. She says Brown’s boast about his accomplishments in New York would have gotten him expelled if he hadn’t decided to forgo his junior year and instead travel with his father to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. It was there that Brown had to jump out of a moving cab—though because of the mumbling, it’s not clear why. Dar es Salaam was a dangerous place in the summer of 1998. In August, two car bombs exploded at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, killing 224 people and wounding more than 5,000 others. For many Americans, it was the first time they heard the name Osama bin Laden. Brown says he saw corpses in the street.

photography by Nikki Loehr
The trip to Tanzania was supposed to be a profitable one for Robert Brown. He’s a big-game hunter, and on previous expeditions there, he’d seen vast hardwood forests that had never been harvested. He and his partners brought over $1 million worth of sawmill equipment and planned to launch an export business. But the corrupt government ruined them. With seven shipping containers loaded with equipment sitting on the docks in Dar es Salaam, Robert Brown says he simply couldn’t find the right official to bribe. As the project stalled, Barrett Brown found himself with plenty of time to conduct a dual-credit correspondence course online through Texas Tech, which allowed him to graduate high school and earn college credits. When his father’s money finally ran out, they returned to the States.

Brown moved back in with his mother and got a job at the Inwood Theatre, where he made popcorn, took tickets, cleaned the theater. He remembers one night when the father of the ESD girl to whom he’d lost his virginity came in and was none too pleased to see him. When he wasn’t working, he was reading. Or drinking whiskey with Hockaday girls who’d come over to his house after school.

Mirna Hariz was one of those girls. After Brown eventually got into UT Austin, she wound up there, too. “We all used to hang out at his house,” she says. “One day he had a test. We said, ‘Barrett, I thought you had a test right now.’ He said, ‘I’m not going.’ We said, ‘You’re going to have to make it up?’ He said, ‘No. I’m not going to school anymore.’ He never mentioned it again. That was just it.”

After he dropped out, Brown bounced among New York City, Austin, and Zihuatanejo, taking on a succession of writing jobs and freelance gigs. He got fired from Nerve.com, he says, for “intransigence.” He wrote copy for AOL—but then he stopped. In 2007, he published a book with Jon P. Alston called Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Easter Bunny. Alan Dershowitz described it as being “in the great tradition of debunkers with a sense of humor, from Thomas Paine to Mark Twain.”

By December 2009, Brown was living on Hariz’s couch in New York City. She had become a lawyer and had moved there to work on the lawsuit filed by emergency workers who were denied long-term medical coverage for ailments caused by inhaling what was left of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. Hariz’s apartment was in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.

“Mirna had two rules,” Brown says. “ ‘Don’t shoot up, and don’t f— girls on my bed.’ I broke both those rules pretty quickly.”

He didn’t just break the rules. Again, he bragged about it—in a fashion. For the New York Press he wrote an anonymous story about an encounter in Hariz’s apartment with a girl who asked him to pretend to rape her on their first date. An excerpt:

“The date was going well even before it started going memorably, which was bizarre, as I gave off every warning signal as to my failures as a person, like having to share a coffee mug of vodka with the girl because I’d accidentally broken all the glasses in the apartment. At some point I actually made her look at this video game I was playing, called Dwarf Fortress, in which I pretended that I was some large number of dwarves, all living together in a fortress. Eventually she relented and we had sex, which was probably for the best.”

His date wrote a companion piece, also anonymously, in which she said, “There was something appealingly wholesome about him, so all-American—he was cowboy boots, medium-rare bacon cheeseburgers, and Monday Night Football—that I just couldn’t resist.”

Not every day in Williamsburg was so debauched. Hariz remembers coming home once to find Brown playing basketball with what she calls “street toughs.” “There was the one skinny white guy playing with all these huge black guys,” she says. “He leads this very Kerouac-seeming life. When he goes out, it’s for adventure.”

But Brown wasn’t going out much. By this point, he’d become deeply involved with Anonymous’ efforts to support WikiLeaks, spending marathon sessions hunched over his computer.

“I would try to get him to come out with me, go to a bar, but he wouldn’t,” Hariz says. Instead, Brown would stay home and shoot heroin. “When he’s messed up, all he does is work. It’s not like he’s out there, partying it up, engaging in risky behavior. He’s just working—while doing drugs. I’d get up, and he’d be sitting in front of his computer, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. When I’d get home, he’d be sitting in the same position, working. I’d go to bed at 4 in the morning, wake up, and he’d still be there.”

This is when Brown wrote the Huffington Post article about Operation Titstorm and wound up admitting to Gregg Housh that he, too, was Anonymous. But Brown didn’t come out publicly until just a few months ago, after the Operation Payback DDoS attacks on Visa and MasterCard and others. Dutch authorities quickly arrested a 16-year-old boy in The Hague, Netherlands, identifying him only as Jeroenz0r, an IRC operator (aka one of the Anons that determines a target for the Low Orbit Ion Cannon). Anonymous decided that it had to get its message out quickly—the message being that MasterCard, according to Anonymous, was processing payments to the Ku Klux Klan but not to WikiLeaks, which Anonymous considers not just a kindred spirit but a legitimate journalistic enterprise. In fact, Housh has said that Anonymous launches DDoS attacks in some cases with the sole aim of spurring the press to ask questions, thereby giving Anonymous a forum in which to discuss its agenda.

With Operation Payback, Anonymous had created a huge forum. Yet it had only one real spokesman to take advantage of the opportunity, poor Gregg Housh, who was, let’s not forget, trying to get some actual bills-paying work done at home when the media came calling.

Enter Barrett Brown, former poet laureate of Preston Hollow.

• • •

The promotion to unofficial spokesman for a nonentity might seem like a swell thing for Brown, something he could write home about, tell his parents to stop worrying. There are drawbacks, though.

First, and most obvious, the nonposition comes with a nonsalary. Also no health benefits nor 401(k).

Second, he’s now what Anons call a namefag. The term is not intrinsically derogatory. It just means that one has publicly identified oneself as Anonymous, using the name on one’s birth certificate. I’ve talked to Anons on IRC who are quite happy with the work Housh and Brown have done to explain Anonymous to the media and, in Brown’s case, write about the group and organize legal defense for members who have been raided. One Anonymous hacker told me that Housh and Brown “are strong observers only, giving them the right to identities.” But then there are those who detest namefags.

“It isn’t cool at all being this person,” Housh says. “About 75 percent of the people involved in things are happy someone is trying to keep the media straight. Fifteen percent don’t give a shit either way and just shrug people like me off as namefags and media whores. The other 10 percent spend time every day trying to make your life hell, attacking you, telling everyone lies about you.”

Housh says disgruntled Anons have handed over fake chat logs to the FBI purporting to show that he runs Anonymous. Anons have dropped dox on Brown, too, published his personal information in an effort to discredit and embarrass him.

And it’s not just the lack of anonymity that riles up that 10 percent of Anonymous. Brown believes that Anonymous is a force for good, that it can and should be used to topple oppressive regimes, eradicate the necessarily corrupt nation-state. Brown has been at the vanguard of Anonymous’ operations in Tunisia and other Arab nations, writing guides to street fighting and first aid that Anonymous posted on government websites it had taken control of. Much was made about how well-organized the Egyptian protestors were because they could coordinate their efforts on Facebook. Partly that’s thanks to Anonymous Facebook spammers that mass-invited thousands of Egyptians into the protest groups.

This sort of work gets an Anon branded as a moralfag. I spoke online with the user who runs the Twitter account @FakeGregg­Housh. The user said the real Gregg Housh would identify her as a woman named Jennifer Emrick, but the user identified himself as Donald Wassalanya, a name that I could not find in public records. The real Housh said the user could be Emrick—or someone else. Other Anons on IRC told me Emrick was Fake Housh. In any case, Fake Housh seems to speak for that 10 percent.

“Gregg would have ya live in a world where Anon is a force for good, something that can be marketed,” Fake Housh says. “We do what we do because we can, and it amuses us, not because it’s just or right. Morals have their place in our society. Anonymous isn’t a place for morals.”

Fake Housh says that what Brown has been doing in Libya and elsewhere is “armchair protesting” that has little if any effect on the protests. “It’s just a way to look good and feel good.”

Finally, there is a third drawback to Brown’s new, more visible role in Anonymous. He just might get arrested. Because Brown likes to brag. Just like he did with the poem at Preston Hollow and the “Meet the Intern” ditty about the eventful school trip to New York City and the New York Press essay about the rather flagrant violation of Mirna Hariz’s second rule, Brown, now that he’s a namefag, has taken to calling enemies of Anonymous and certain federal authorities (sometimes one and the same) to tell them how cool he is. Of course, that’s not what he explicitly says. He says he’s calling to help.

A few weeks ago, he talked to a woman in the NSA. He says he contacted her as a courtesy, to let them know that Anonymous had a copy of Stuxnet. That would be the most infamous, most complex bit of malware ever written, the world’s first weaponized computer virus, which was revealed last year to have crippled much of Iran’s nuclear program. Some think the Israeli government created it, possibly with help from the United States. The copy Anonymous has—meaning, also, that Brown has a copy of Stuxnet on his harmless-looking Sony Vaio notebook—is defanged, to an extent.

But still. Stuxnet. At the Quarter Bar.

And how, you may well wonder, did both Anonymous and the namefag who bores his sexually adventuresome dates with Dwarf Fortress come to own a copy of Stuxnet? First the slightly technical explanation of Anonymous’ greatest stunt yet, then the way Stephen Colbert described it.

• • •

On February 4, days after authorities had raided some 40 suspected members of Anonymous in connection with Operation Payback, Aaron Barr, the CEO of California-based cyber-security firm and government contractor HBGary Federal, stepped up and asked to be a target. Barr gave an interview to the Financial Times in which he claimed to have identified Anonymous’ leadership using social engineering hacks—essentially trolling Facebook and other networks. Barr told the Financial Times he planned to unveil his research at an upcoming security conference.

Brown says Barr had everything wrong. He was about to release names of innocent people whom the feds would then raid. Nonetheless, Anonymous issued a press release, partially written by Brown, conceding defeat.

Then, the very next day, they attacked. Using something called an SQL injection, they broke into the database underlying hbgaryfederal.com. There, Anonymous hackers found what Brown later described in an article for the Guardian as a “farrago of embarrassments”: a carelessly constructed database, systems running software with known security flaws, passwords poorly encoded, and, worst of all, the same password used on multiple systems.

Within hours, Anonymous had destroyed HBGary Federal and its parent company, HBGary.

On February 24, Colbert did a lengthy segment on the hack, which by then had become international news. Here’s how he played it:

“Barr threatened Anonymous by telling the Financial Times he had collected information on their core leaders, including many of their real names. Now, to put that in hacker terms: Anonymous is a hornet’s nest. And Barr said, ‘I’m going to stick my penis in that thing.’”

Colbert relayed that Anonymous took down Barr’s website, stole his e-mails, deleted many gigabytes of HBGary research data, trashed Barr’s Twitter account, and remotely wiped his iPad. “And he had just reached the Ham ’Em High level on Angry Birds,” Colbert said, to much studio laughter. “Anonymous then published all of Barr’s e-mails—including one from his wife saying, ‘I will file for divorce’—and Barr’s World of Warcraft name, sevrynsten. That’s right. They ruined both his lives.”

Four days after the Colbert jokes, Barr resigned his post at HBGary Federal.

Of course, Brown had called Barr an hour after the hack. He played a recording of that conversation for me. He keeps recordings like these as trophies. As the conversation grows less productive, somewhere around the 10-minute mark, Brown deadpans: “Well, you’ll have a lot to talk about at the security conference.” (HBGary later decided to withdraw from the conference.)

“Our people break laws, yes. When we do so, we do it as an act of civil disobedience. We do it ethically.”

Barrett Brown
The HBGary hack would amount to nothing but lulz—laughs at someone else’s expense, the only acceptable motivation for any Anon who isn’t one of those moralfags—except that’s how Anonymous got its copy of Stuxnet. Someone at the antivirus firm McAfee had e-mailed it to Barr. But, far more important, buried in the 70,000 HBGary e-mails (which Anonymous made available to everyone on the file-sharing service BitTorrent) was clear evidence of a far-ranging conspiracy among several powerful corporate entities to commit what could be crimes. HBGary Federal, along with two other security firms with federal contracts, Berico Technologies and Palantir Technologies, were crafting a lucrative sales pitch to conduct a “disinformation campaign” against critics of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Hunton & Williams, the well-connected Washington, D.C., law and lobbying firm that was soliciting the work, also counts as a client Bank of America. The hacked e-mails show that the three security firms were working on a similar proposal to target supporters of WikiLeaks on behalf of Bank of America, which has reason to believe it might be the group’s next target.

As February drew to a close and D Magazine went to press, about a dozen House Democrats called for an investigation into Hunton & Williams and the three security firms, saying that the hacked e-mails appear “to reveal a conspiracy to use subversive techniques to target Chamber critics,” including “possible illegal actions against citizens engaged in free speech.”

And so it comes to pass that the kid who first used his computer to feel a girl up, then later found he could use it to mess with furries, now finds himself using it to fight for free speech, of all things.

“Our people break laws, yes,” Brown says. “When we do so, we do it as an act of civil disobedience. We do it ethically.”

But everyone who’s Anonymous is anonymous. So there are probably some bad people helping out. Bad people acting ethically?

“We don’t do background checks on people,” Brown says. “There are bad Anons, sure. They could be doing corporate evil or regular evil. But while they’re with us, they’re doing good.”

At one point, he tells me that he’s trying “to show these kids that being bad isn’t awesome.” He’s mostly joking.


• • •

On the Sunday afternoon before Michael Isikoff’s visit to Dallas, Barrett Brown and I are having brunch on the patio of the Old Monk, on Henderson Avenue. Or, rather, I am having brunch. Brown orders only coffee and orange juice. He is polite to the waitress, saying “please” and “thank you” each time she fills his mug. He’s smoking and wearing the boots-and-blue-oxford uniform. The weather is perfect.

We come around to the topic of the future and what it holds for him. It’s not something he likes to discuss. He says he doesn’t like to make plans. “Hitler had plans,” he says.

We talk about his prospects of earning a real living. Money hasn’t held much sway over him. Having watched his father lose so much of it, he sees it as ephemeral. But he’s working on a film treatment for a producer in Los Angeles. He’s got another book coming out soon.

I tell him that the drugs and the constant smoking give me concern. I can’t help myself. In some ways, I still see him as that phlegmy 16-year-old intern who could use some good advice. I tell him something Loehr told me, that if he’s going to have an impact, he’s going to have to connect with people, and he can’t do that on heroin. Words to that effect.

“At the risk of sounding like an asshole,” he says, “a lot of the rules don’t apply to me. My heroin addiction is much different than everyone else’s.”

Then he gets serious. Sort of. “Everything I’m doing now is healthier than it was,” he says. “I used to roll my own cigarettes. Now they have filters. I’m doing all this gay shit. I’m jogging on the Katy Trail. I’m dating a girl. How gay is that?”


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