Insight: Lauri Love - the making of a hacker

Lauri Love. Picture: SWNS
Lauri Love. Picture: SWNS
Have your say

The man facing charges of hacking into US military computer systems learnt his activism at Glasgow University, finds Dani Garavelli

EVERYONE involved in the ­eight-month occupation of the Hetherington Building at Glasgow University in 2011 remembers Lauri Love. Though not formally a leader of the high-profile campaign against the cuts, the then 26-year-old physics student was always at the front, leading the charge, with little thought of the long-term consequences.

Those who knew him best describe him as ideologically motivated, but also narcissistic, messianic even. “He would always want to be the guy on the megaphone,” says one former acquaintance. “He was horrified by inequality and the terrible things that happen in the world; he very much wanted to be part of changing that, perhaps to be a hero. But he had a low capacity for judging risk, never stopping to consider if what he was doing might be illegal or, if it was illegal, how much trouble he would get himself into. He was a bit of a loose cannon really.”

Last week, the students who shared so much in those fraught months had cause to reassess what they really knew about their former comrade. Love, it emerged, had been charged with hacking into thousands of computer systems, including those of the US Army, US Missile Defence Agency and Nasa, in a year-long campaign allegedly conducted from his parents’ home in the village of Stradishall in Suffolk.

Along with three other unnamed co-conspirators in Australia and Sweden, he is accused of stealing sensitive military data and personal information belonging to servicemen and women. A separate complaint filed in the Eastern District of Virginia alleges he was also involved in Operation Last Resort, a cyber-attack on the US Sentencing Commission carried out by the online collective of hacktivists, Anonymous, in protest at the suicide of Aaron Swartz, who had been charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act after allegedly downloading copies of academic journals from a digital library.

Love’s arrest by the National Crime Agency was announced after US prosecutors filed an indictment in a federal court in Newark, New Jersey. He has been charged with one count of gaining unauthorised access to a US government computer and one count of conspiracy. With the US government expected to seek his extradition (and a potential ten-year jail sentence at stake if it succeeds), a support campaign is already gathering momentum. The mothers of Gary McKinnon and Richard O’Dwyer, both of whom successfully fought the extradition of their sons on hacking charges, have complained the US government is targeting “geeks”, and a Facebook page – No Love for the US – has been set up to oppose any handover.

The news of Love’s arrest spread like a virus around his old Glasgow University friends. Footage of him talking at a meeting chaired by former Liberal Democrat leader (and then rector of the university) Charles Kennedy was soon circulating online. Some recalled him as a disruptive influence, others as a egotist with a “dismissive” attitude towards women. Those who were holed up with him for months at a time say he was a man of intense fixations. “He was the kind of guy who would read a book about, say, the Labour Party’s Militant Tendency – and for a week that would be all he talked about; then the next week it might be a book about Mao and he would be a Maoist,” said another former acquaintance.

All are struggling to come to terms with the idea of him as a “sophisticated and prolific hacker”. What does ring true with those who knew him, however, are the grandiose statements he and his co-conspirators apparently made in public internet chatrooms. “You have no idea how much we can f*** with the US government if we wanted to,” he is said to have boasted in one. “When you see what he has been saying in public internet chats, when you see he used a website that was linked to his own e-mail address with his own name in it, and that’s how they caught him, that very much fits with the man I was acquainted with and not really the profile of some computer genius,” says Alistair Davidson, a fellow Hetherington protester and digital expert who has given talks on the political economy of the ­internet.

The Glasgow University students and associated supporters first took over the former postgraduate club on 11 January, 2011, two months after WikiLeaks had released a set of almost 400,000 documents known as the “Iraq War Logs” and just as the Arab Spring was starting. It is clear Love was interested in these and other international developments. Back then he was tweeting under the name Smedley Butler – a major general in the US marines in the first half of the 20th century who wrote a book criticising American foreign policy and interventionism. Love was following the work of radical journalist Glenn Greenwald and the bulletin board 4Chan, from which Anonymous originated, and the previous year he had tweeted in opposition to the Digital Economy Bill, which was designed to curb illegal file-sharing. But while everyone remembers his interest in DJ-ing, no-one recalls him talking about hacktivism. So how – in the space of just 18 months – did this middle-class student suddenly graduate from standard acts of civil disobedience in Glasgow to being a man wanted by the US government?

Love, who is half Finnish, was in the second year of his degree when the occupation began. Thought to have embarked on and dropped out of an earlier university course, he was, his former Glasgow University acquaintances say, a veteran of left-wing protests, having already taken part in anti-austerity demos elsewhere in the country. Perhaps because of his age and his organisational ability, he initially impressed the protesters who allowed him to push himself to the fore. In the early days, the occupation garnered much support from prominent figures including AL Kennedy, Billy Bragg and Liz Lochhead. But there were also some less well-judged stunts, most notably the so-called “kettling” of NUS leader Aaron Porter at the Labour youth conference for failing to come out strongly enough against the cuts, in which Love is believed to have been involved.

Aspects of the occupation of the Hetherington were opposed by the Glasgow University Union, the Queen Margaret Union and the Students Representative Council. But what few people condoned was the heavy-handed attempt to evict the protesters from the building on 6 March, 2011, an event that is said to have deeply affected those involved and may have helped harden Love’s attitude towards authority.

Strathclyde Police were called in to shunt the protesters out as a crowd gathered outside. “It was extremely traumatic for everyone,” says Davidson, who wasn’t there, but witnessed the fallout. “There were 60 officers, a dog unit and a helicopter against mostly teenagers. People were being dragged out and, obviously, in the course of that, people were bashed about.”

The irony was that, having been dislodged from the Hetherington building, the students stormed the senate rooms and took up residence there. After a few hours, the university caved in and let them back into the Hetherington. The event was a turning-point in the dispute; after this, Education Secretary Mike Russell stepped in and most of the protesters’ demands, including a new postgraduate club, no further cuts to courses and no compulsory redundancies, were eventually met.

But it was a turning point for the individual students too. “They were shellshocked,” says Davidson. “To be a young person who may have never had any contact with the police before, then suddenly to be confronted by officers in full riot mode. There were a number of concussions, one dislocated arm – it was quite an experience for them, one I think that would outrage anyone.”

By the time the Hetherington occupation finally ended in August 2011, Love was a deeply divisive figure. He had been edged out by his fellow protesters. Within a few months, he had apparently dropped out of university and become involved with Occupy Glasgow, which had set up camp in George Square. From the outset, the Occupy movement which campaigned for global equality in the wake of the bankers’ scandal, had links with Anonymous, which carries out cyber-­attacks on government agencies and major corporations, the idea being that the fight against the system needs to be waged in both the real and virtual worlds. Given the interconnection between the two, it is thought likely that a nascent interest in hacktivism turned into something more extreme as Love mingled with other ­Occupy members.

Love is not the first Scot either to hack into US government websites, or to become embroiled with Anonymous.

There was McKinnon, who infiltrated US military and Nasa computers in 2001-02. But, more recently, 18-year-old Jake Davis – aka Topiary – was unmasked as the PR guru for Anonymous offshoot LulzSec, a role he carried out from his bedroom in Yell in Shetland.

Investigating Anonymous in the wake of Davis’s arrest, one journalist, Carole Cadwalladr, spoke to several hacktivists online, including one using the name “Nsh”, one of Love’s many aliases according to the US indictment.

Noting that Nsh liked “long words and historical analogies”, and speculating that he attended one of our “better universities”, she quoted him as writing that what the world was witnessing with Anonymous was “the emergence of a new kind of identity, and with it a new form of identity politics” and claiming random attacks on websites were just a contemporary version of writing a political slogan on a wall.

There will be those who agree Love is making a political point, who view his acts as merely an extension of civil disobedience, a virtual protest against injustice. But there are others who see hacktivists as little more than mischief-makers, anarchists who put other people’s personal information at risk for the sheer pleasure of watching the havoc they wreak; for the lolz, as it were.

“I think if he has done everything he is said to have done, if he’s accessed people’s personal information – and to be honest it doesn’t sound as if he’s found any great secrets the world needs to hear – that seems to me like a crime that we can’t generally allow to happen,” says Davidson, who is in the process of setting up a think-tank called the Centre for Technology and Society. Even if Love has committed a crime, there is still the question of whether he deserves to spend ten years in jail, especially as the US is suspected of ramping up the charges wherever hacking is involved. “I think the US government is interested in making an example of people over hacking. They are saying he is a genius, a master hacker when you could take the view that whether what he has done is right or wrong, and it’s probably wrong, he has done it for political reasons and he is more foolish than dangerous,” says Davidson.

After he was sentenced at the end of last year, Jake Davis said he regretted 95 per cent of all the things he had ever said or done on the internet. “It was my world, but it was a very limited world. You can see and hear it, but you can’t touch the internet. It’s a world devoid of empathy,” he said. “So it was my world, and it was a very cynical world and I became a very cynical person.”

Love is not as young, not as isolated, not as naive. But it will be interesting to see what tangling with the US justice system does to his perspective. For the moment, he seems to be buoyed by his supporters. Though he is keeping a low-profile, a friend involved in the Facebook campaign, last week claimed he had passed on his thanks, with the words: “We’re all in this together and remember there is a much bigger picture that it is important we keep an eye on.” «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1