Welcome to the greatest story that I have never told. The story of why I spent years barred from entering the good ol’ United States of America. The home of the brave and the land of the free which felt the need to issue a 21-year-old with a barring order after I was foolishly found hacking into some CIA servers on a dare from a friend. It will also tackle some of the questions I have received about both myself and Avalanche for pretty much the past year. Some housekeeping issues to get out of the way before anything else happens:
1. Do not ask me what my handle is, I will not tell you. For legal reasons, some items will be excluded.
2. I didn’t do anything majorly wrong. The one I got caught for was just a dare gone too far!
3. Every hacker’s greatest weakness is their ridiculous ego. We truly and idiotically believe that we are invincible.
Now, on to the main story of my life as a hacker, a story of which there may be an actual movie about someday as it is so ridiculous. I’m thinking Ryan Gosling to play the leading role but, you know I’m open to suggestions. I’ll settle for Reynolds or more than likely the guy who plays Mike in Suits. It is also important to note that before I found coding, I was struggling to apply myself in any way. I was marked as a difficult child by all my teachers and left to fend for myself a lot of the time as they did not know how to engage me, hence the arrogant chip on my shoulder when writing this.
The entry to the murky world of hacking begins with a hint of a whisper, almost barely audible across terabytes of data from one end of the world to the next but it is enough to pique your curiosity as a teenager in need of a challenge. You engage with those who are paying you so much attention as they seduce you into wanting more information. Finally, some people whom you believe that are on your level both intellectually and mischief wise.
Bits of software you work on in between mundane homework to hand into muddling teachers falls by the wayside, your new online comrades need your help to ensure that they can continue to keep the fight going against the "bad guys". You fall victim to promises about changing the world, overthrowing fascist regimes and instilling the kind of good that you have only dreamed about but make no mistake, this is the big league's kid. Your black hat is on. You've been drafted. You're in the great game now and the great game is terrifying. You are Anonymous and Everyone all at once.
Now, as I mentioned above, when it comes to the whole being barred from entering the USA thing, I didn’t do anything majorly wrong. That is not to say I have not done things that certainly fall on the black side of right and wrong. It is a rite of passage you must go through to be taken seriously in a very dangerous world. As with anything I do, I am not intent just doing it, I want to be the best to ever do it. For a long time, I told myself I was forced to do some things I was not happy with to earn a name for myself, to pay my way through college, it was a means to an end etc, but if I was to be truly honest, I loved the challenge of it.
I loved being an outlaw, it was the only way I knew to channel all the energy and creative output I couldn’t plug, no matter how much I tried to. Alone in the darkness, I found true illumination by the light of my ever-glowing screens. The scary thing is you begin to love living among the chaos, it becomes all that you can ever know. You find yourself growing colder with every victory against the ever-powerful enemy. You don't even realise that you are becoming what you once despised. You don’t even know who the enemy is. For someone who is emotionally oblivious like me, it was a good place to be. I could be stimulated and as I can’t really process emotion, the work didn’t bother me.
That was when I met the greatest mind I have ever known, I didn’t even know his real name until a few weeks ago, but that was when I met Stolz. The person who thought me how to have fun with the capabilities I had, how to grow them and how to ensure that they are used to help people. He pulled me off the very dark path I was on. I went from taking out "questionable" contracts on the Dark Web for cash to setting up back-channel funnel accounts to charities from major conglomerates who would never even notice the pittance that was being syphoned and anonymously donated.
People who were about to lose their homes found themselves getting 6 months grace periods from banks (which I firmly believe are the worst institutions in the world) so my evolution to a Robin Hood of sorts was well underway.
This positive shift happened to come as my business started to grow and I found myself being edged toward adulthood no matter how I fought it, so I decided I had to park my hacking habits as I had to grow up and I wanted to lean more into the creative side of development anyway. It was a good time for all involved, so Stolz and I decided to schedule weekly online meetings to keep each other informed of our projects and as he lived in Berlin at the time, to keep in touch.
The chain of events that is still going on began in late 2011. Stolz and I would often argue about who is better, falling into coding rabbit holes trying to outdo each other. As with everyone who possesses the skills we do, we had a healthy belief in a lot of conspiracy theories and are massive nerds. Stolz heard some chatter on a forum that the CIA had accidentally left some proof on a vulnerable server that Area 51 exists and as he could easily do, he baited me into another competition. The first to get in and out with information won. We could be the ones to expose the Area 51 conspiracy theories to the mainstream world as a fact. I was sold immediately. The game was on.
I found myself past the initial firewalls and defence systems easily and in my arrogance, I did not consider an exit strategy as the idea of winning our contest consumed me. I won’t bore you with the details but exactly 9 minutes later, my entire system was shut down and I had received a call from Homeland Security. I personally thought I was an over-reaction, but the Americans weren’t impressed. I received a slap on the wrist as I had not technically stolen anything or viewed sensitive information, but I was branded an enemy of the state and could not enter the country.
As I had no intention of going to prison I decided it best to avoid the US for the next few years and I didn’t give it another thought until 2016 when it became common knowledge in the hacking world. Stolz and I had decided to cease direct communication for both of our sakes. This is where things got messy.
Blackmail is a powerful tool in the hacking world, it is simply how things are done at a certain level. For the first time I was left vulnerable, powerful people within a powerful organisation learned my real name and what I do for a living. As I was now a success at Avalanche, I thought I had left the Dark Web behind as a distant memory that I did not want to acknowledge. Not everybody shared that view.
I found myself being pulled, blackmailed back into the darkness of the world I had helped to create. I naively believed that I had done my time and would be left in peace. That my exploits into some of the most secure servers in the world would go unnoticed. I spent the majority of 2016 with my black hat back on blackmailed into carrying out tasks I was strictly against with threats made against me and people around me if I did not comply.
Now, this isn’t an opportunity to throw a pity party, it is merely an observation that actions have consequences. I have since got out from under the dictatorship I found myself in. I made the decisions and I would do so again if needed. What I was not prepared for was how it would affect me professionally and how that would roll into my personal life.
As of December 29th, 2016, I was removed from my role as the CEO of Avalanche and relegated to a designer role as I was deemed not fit for leadership of a quickly growing company. This was the first time in my life I have experienced real loss and grief and I withdrew into myself after my initial white rage had subsided. As I am an Irish man and therefore unable to deal with emotion in a healthy way, the initial solution to my problem was alcohol. Not in a "he drank it all away" kind of mode, more to numb the pain and forget about the whole thing if only for a small time so I spent some time on auto-pilot, thankfully this only lasted a few weeks.
The thing I had spent 5 years of my life building had been taken away from me, so I decided to wallow in self-pity for a while and pick fights with almost anyone just to distract from own inadequacies. Something I loathe about myself looking back. Once this stage had been completed and after a few deep stares into the abyss, I had the pleasure of experiencing my first panic attack.
This was when I knew it was time to talk to somebody about it even though 95% of me knew that if I sat back and looked at it logically, I could create a plan to get back to where I wanted. I can be quite cold and computer like myself, I pride myself on always finding a solution to problems because I don’t need to process the emotion involved. I can look at most problems and find the solution. The 5% I couldn’t process really had a grasp of me at the time though. It's funny. People say that you should look after your mental health in the same way that you look after your physical health. Keep an eye on it, don't over-do it and if you see the signs of neglect get yourself to the gym.
I have been in therapy a few times because of it this year (that's the first time I've admitted that to anyone outside of my circle - there is no shame in it, and there should certainly be no stigma (side: if you're feeling like you need help or just talk, you can hit me up at any point & ask me how I did it, I'll gladly offer advice)).
I have not been the easiest person to be around for the last 12 months as a result, I have been withdrawn, irritable and more than anything I wanted to be left alone but at some stage, it is time to wake yourself up and decide to fix your problem. I did so after about 6 months of the above but my introduction to grief & loss was only beginning.
I had been lucky enough to be on this Earth for 27 years before learning that life really kicks you when you’re down. I had just begun to wrap my head around the fact that I was now working for the company that I founded when I learned that my mentor and friend, Stolz, had been killed in Syria. While I had naturally moved into the corporate world he went the opposite direction and dedicated himself to helping people in disadvantaged areas. It is a strange feeling to grieve for somebody you have never even met but that is where I found myself in 2017.
Disappointed in myself that my own arrogance allowed my baby to be taken from me and reeling from the loss of a friend, I decided that it was time to dust myself off and get back in the ring for a few more rounds. I am finishing this article in Berlin to pay my respects to my fallen mentor (Berlin is his birthplace) and while I miss my friend, I know that he would push me to get back what is mine more than anyone. I will know in 12 days whether I am going to be the CEO of Avalanche again or if I will be unemployed and have to create a CV for the first time in my life.
Either way, I will get some closure on what has been a pretty shit year for me, I hope that I can end it on a high having returned to the mountaintop, put my hacking days firmly behind me and get back to what I do best. Designing things and just generally helping people make the internet a better place. What started as generally feeling sorry for myself has ended with me hungry for the fight in the last few weeks/months.
I typically don’t like the over-reaching effect that the term "mental health" has had on society and our generation. It has led us to be soft to a degree. Everybody has their shit but that doesn’t give you a pass to just put your head in the sand and excuse it as poor mental health. It seems like an easy way out for some people when a bit of backbone is the answer compared to the cotton wool approach that seems to be the go-to option now. I know what advice my Father/Grandfather & Stolz would give me: "Man up kid, if there is a fight to be won, go and win it". So that is what I decided to do.
Personally speaking, it took a handful of friends to listen to my problems (Not try and fix but just listen) and from there I could develop a plan to get back what is rightfully mine. I hope I am in my familiar corner in my local in the coming weeks telling the same stories with the same old faces with my rightful title at Avalanche restored with a knowing smile from those that have helped me through this year. If it isn’t I am good with that too because I know that it’s not the end of the world anymore because I faced my demons, met them head on and I will be happy whatever the outcome.
It seems so small compared to what Stolz had to go through but perhaps it is my penance for my escapades with the CIA many moons ago. I don't know what will happen in the future due to increased monitoring I will suffer because of this article but what I do know is that I will not be commanded and more importantly, I will not be controlled ever again. It is why I cover webcams with tape, why I carry a signal blocker with me at all times and why I usually only get a few hours of sleep every night.
If there is anything that this dickhead of a year has taught me, it’s that it is important to change with the world, but it is even more important to stay true to yourself. When you are being told to move, that you can muster the courage to plant your feet, look at the world and tell them no, you move.
For Stolz, goodbye dear friend.