Cosmo is a 15-year-old boy who just received the hacker equivalent of a death sentence. All of his electronics: gone. The Internet: off-limits until he's 21. He's completely vanished from the world he called home.
I met Cosmo the God (hacker alias, of course, to go along with with the phony profile picture up top) by mistake. When Twitter went down over the summer, rumors quickly erupted that it'd been taken down—and a group of young web malefactors who went by "UGNazi" claimed responsibility. The hacker group had seen its share of mild online destruction in the past: killing the CIA's website last spring, once hijacking all of 4chan. They were players.
It's doubtful they wrestled down Twitter—it was probably just a bug. Most other hackers I spoke with doubted UGNazi had the DDoS power to derail such a massive online service; Cosmo's claims were just opportunism, they said.
Cosmo, for his part, remained adamant that the Twitter hack had been his group's doing, and we stayed in touch even after the story had blown over. Unlike his peers at Anonymous, Cosmo rarely masked the fact that he's just a screwed up kid. The lazy attempts to shock with a Hitler-themed hacker homepage, the occasionally offensive, arbitrarily bigoted tweets—the online attacks that didn't seem to follow any coherent agenda. Cosmo hacked like other high school kids spray paint walls or set off smoke bombs. Sabu wanted the terrorized respect of the entire Internet—Cosmo just wanted to piss people off and scare adults. Always friendly, good at what he does, but essentially just a punk, and very much a child.
But he still committed adult crimes. And so it wasn't long until Cosmo was arrested, caught in a credit card fraud dragnet this summer. His crew's site was seized by the FBI. He was pulled out of school. Court dates replaced class. His laptop was snatched by the police. But he always managed to crawl online somehow and respond to my messages—he reached AIM through an iPod he concealed from the cops, and sent me emails from a hidden Kindle. When he couldn't get to me himself, someone else—a "friend"—spoke on his behalf. He always found a way online.
Then came the sentencing, and for a teen whose life is the Internet, it was about as harsh as you could imagine: a probation period that bans Cosmo from using the Internet or any of his gadgets for the next six years. The news was swift, and I knew he'd be gone soon.
I took to Twitter, where we'd first talked, and asked him if he was still out there.
November 14th, 11:09 PM
Finally, Cosmo asked if we could move the conversation to Skype the next day—after he'd told me he'd deleted all of his IM accounts. He also asked me not to talk to Virus—a hacking rival of his—still stuck in his game in the few hours he had left to even be aware of it.
[6:13:15 PM] Cosmo: hey
[6:13:45 PM] sambiddle: do you have any clearer picture of when you'll have to give up this laptop?
[6:14:33 PM] Cosmo: this week
[6:14:38 PM] Cosmo: anyday now
[6:14:48 PM] sambiddle: they haven't told you when?
[6:15:01 PM] Cosmo: they said they will have a probation officer come out within a week
[6:15:09 PM] Cosmo: or something like that
[6:15:11 PM] sambiddle: how are things at home?
[6:16:15 PM] Cosmo: good
[6:16:24 PM] Cosmo: cbs news showed up at my house the other day
[6:16:28 PM] Cosmo: lol
[6:16:28 PM] sambiddle: how was that?
[6:16:34 PM] Cosmo: asking for a interview
[6:16:37 PM] Cosmo: said no
[6:16:42 PM] sambiddle: probably smart
[6:16:46 PM] Cosmo: yeah
[6:17:03 PM] sambiddle: are you back at school?
[6:19:37 PM] Cosmo: yea
[6:21:02 PM] sambiddle: how is that so far? do other people talk about what you've been going through?
[6:21:13 PM] Cosmo: no one knows about hte hacking stuff
That was the last thing I ever heard from Cosmo.
Now he's tossed out into our real world, surrounded by kids he doesn't know very well, who have no idea that he's on legal probation for, and who see only a tall, husky high schooler. They'll know nothing of his past, his problems, his malicious streak, his curious predilections, his cleverness, his teenage nihilism. What they'll learn will be hallway gossip. They won't know Cosmo, because Cosmo exists on the Internet.
But the very young human behind the keyboard is out there, under police supervision, living with a harsh probation he'll probably be tempted to violate every single day. And there's plenty of reason to think he'll relapse—he'd already flouted the rules to talk to me. I asked Virus:
11:36:15 AM Sam Biddle: you think he's gonna make it six years?
11:36:43 AM Virus: definitely not
11:37:04 AM Virus: just the other day he tried stealing a friends paypal account
11:37:11 AM Virus: he won't make it ~6 yrs
The kid just can't help himself.