We All Got Trolled

Written by David Kushner, Matter

Monday August 25th, 2014

Supporters of Internet freedom rallied around weev before he went to prison. But now that the hacker is out, he’s douchier—and maybe scarier—than ever

“Want a bump?”

It’s not that surprising when Andrew “weev” Auernheimer offers me coke shortly after we first meet. As one of the Net’s most notorious trolls, the scruffily elfin 28-year-old is known for his provocations. He’s the former president of the Gay Nigger Association of America (GNAA), a group of online pranksters who lived up to their offensive name. In YouTube “sermons,” as he calls them, weev guzzles from a large bottle of mescaline tea and waves his gun as he rants against Jews. “We’ve got a whole fucking Internet to cover with dongs and swastikas,” he writes, “and we’ve got a whole world to fill with monuments to martyrs that the government dares call ‘terrorists.’ Let the ruin begin.”

Weev’s been called an “attention whore,” a “paranoid, anti-Semitic, pro-genocide misanthrope,” and likened to a hobbit battling “the snide, wizardly manipulators and mongrel half-orcs” from The Lord of the Rings (and that last one’s from him). But what is surprising is that he’s offering me a bump while we’re in the Brooklyn office of his lawyer, who has just left us sitting alone. Dressed in a green hoodie over a red T-shirt, with a shaggy red beard, scraggly long hair, and tortoise-shell glasses, weev huffs a line as classical music flows from his laptop. He exhales pleasurably, cleaning up just before a legal assistant comes in. “We’re working on your passport,” she tells him.

“Awesome!” he replies. “I got a jet waiting!”

She eyes him, dubiously. “Yeah,” she says, “we’re not going to tell them that.” Them, in this case, is the Feds. And they’ve got history. Though weev says he trolls “for the lulz,” his chief targets are governments and corporations that threaten personal freedom. “I’ve never targeted an individual,” he says. Four years ago, he and 26-year-old hacker Daniel Spitler discovered a flaw in AT&T’s website, which exposed over 114,000 email addresses of iPad users. The most shocking thing about it: There was no real hacking required. AT&T had screwed up by making each user’s email address publicly available online; all one had to do was to type the right URL on the AT&T site. Spitler and weev used a script that plugged in random numbers to spit out the associated email addresses—but, essentially, anyone could guess a right answer. To draw attention to the egregious fuckup, weev sent the email list to several media outlets, including Gawker, which published a redacted version of the list on its site. Though geeks lauded Spitler and weev for publicly shaming AT&T into fixing the hole, the Feds didn’t appreciate the hack, and charged the pair with identity theft and conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

Written during the Reagan administration, the CFAA was originally meant to protect government and financial institutions from unlawful and unauthorized access to their computers. But the law has become outdated and vague. The CFAA fails to specify what “unauthorized access” means, so anyone who violates a website’s terms of service in even the most mundane ways—say, creating a fake profile on a dating site—could be considered a criminal. The law came to wide attention after hacktivist Aaron Swartz, who was facing decades in prison for downloading troves of academic journal articles, committed suicide.

Faced with the CFAA charges, Spitler copped a plea, but weev insisted upon going to trial in his own weevy way — reciting John Keats’ The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream to reporters and fans, and live-tweeting from the proceedings. “I’m going to prison for doing arithmetic!” he shouted. As the case gained attention, a strange thing happened: weev, previously a shadowy fringe player online, became a cause célèbre. “These issues go beyond his specific case,” wrote Hanni Fakhoury, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights advocacy group that came to his defense. The EFF cautioned that going after weev set a precedent that “only discourages security researchers from sharing their discoveries.” Orin Kerr, professor of law at George Washington University and a noted expert on computer law, agreed, saying, “What Auernheimer and Spitler did was lawful authorized access.” Supporters from Mozilla to Anonymous made weev a poster child for the misuse of the CFAA. There were “Free weev” T-shirts, websites, dance remixes of his screeds, quotes with thousands of retweets.

But while weev saw himself as a martyr, not everyone was a fan. “You consider yourself a hero of sorts,” federal judge Susan Wigenton admonished weev last March, as a crowd of weev’s fiery (h)acolytes watched. “Without question, the evidence that came out at trial reflected criminal conduct,” she went on. “You’ve shown no contrition whatsoever.” Weev was found guilty of one count of identity fraud and one count of conspiracy to access a computer without authorization, and sentenced to 41 months in prison. He was also ordered to pay $73,167 in restitution to AT&T.

And yet when I meet him in April, weev has reason to celebrate. Two weeks earlier, he was suddenly released from prison after a federal appeals court overturned his conviction. It’s a victory, he says, for his cause: pushing the bounds of free speech in the digital age. And as soon as he was out, weev was back at it, relishing the fact that he couldn’t be ignored and challenging even his supporters to come along for the ride. “I don’t want the support of people who don’t believe in universal liberty,” he tells me. “I don’t want to win because my facade is marketable to a public that hates liberty. Fuck them.”

When I ask weev’s mother, Alyse Auernheimer, what she thinks about her son’s antics, this is what she tells me: “Free speech is the cornerstone of democracy, but I think if you love free speech you don’t take a shit on it.”

Weev and his mother, already distant, grew estranged after the FBI’s raid of weev’s home in Fayetteville, Arkansas for the AT&T hack. The Feds found—weev says planted—an assortment of drugs, and arrested him on felony and misdemeanor possession charges. Weev accused his parents of cooperating with the authorities, which his mother insists isn’t the full story. “Did we speak to law enforcement? Yeah,” she tells me. “But it was about trying to make sure they didn’t lock him up in the worst possible facility if he should be convicted.”

Growing up poor in Arkansas and on a 100-acre farm in Virginia, weev was never one to conform. Weev, whose mother works in real estate and whose father is an industrial engineer for the poultry industry, discovered an early fondness for literature, devouring Keats and Byron and becoming, as he says, “enchanted by the magic of language.” Though short, he flexed his etymological powers on the schoolyard — site of his earliest forays into trolling, which he defines as “using rhetoric offensively.” His preferred technique was seeding playground kids with misinformation (like saying one was insulting the other) and gleefully watching their fights ensue.

After dumpster diving for his first computer, he discovered that writing code was just another form of speech to master. “It’s all about manipulating linguistic systems that would achieve things that are dazzling in effect,” he says. While other kids were watching The Simpsons and playing football, weev was hacking ATMs and exploring the nascent Internet. Convinced the education system was failing their gifted boy, the Auernheimers got him into James Madison University at the age of 14.

It didn’t take. A year later, weev had dropped out to live on his own and support himself writing code. Taking his nickname from his favorite animal — weevils are swarming beetles best known for destroying crops — weev soon found another obsession: drugs. His favorite was LSD, which he claims was uniquely conducive to programming. “I’m already a pretty relentless person, but it makes me far more relentless,” he says. “You can hack better while you’re tripping.”

Before long, weev, found others online who shared his passion for elegant code and offensive rhetoric: the Gay Nigger Association of America. Citing heroes such as Lenny Bruce and Andy Kaufman, the late comedians known for riding the edge of satire, the GNAA had the mission to, as weev puts it, “spread comedy across the Internet,” or at least what it considered comedic. Weev, who became the group’s president in 2010, embraced its ploys: spreading the meme that Jews were responsible for 9/11 and, along with a group called Bantown, posting fake suicide notes on LiveJournal bloggers’ accounts. For him it was a way of seeding the coming revolution. “I find that the revolutions, many of them sort of have an initial phase that’s, like, it’s funny,” he explains. “The Boston Tea Party was funny. And we in the American populace are not yet ready for violent resistance. You know, it’s not time yet. So for the time being, we are being funny.”

Weev’s profile was growing. He was featured in The New York Times Magazine for a story on trolls, confounding the reporter by showing up for his interview in a chauffeur-driven Rolls. Jaime Cochran, the GNAA’s current president, says weev’s theatrical bravado distinguished him from most shadowy online droogs. “There’s really no way to tell when he’s saying the truth or when he’s not,” she says. “I think that’s what people enjoy about his comedy. It is just provocation, but it’s layered like an onion.”

Soon, joking around wasn’t enough. Under the auspices of Goatse Security, named for the Net’s most graphically shocking meme [ED: Matter is conscientiously sparing you the link], weev and a small group of the GNAA’s elite hackers took on a more acerbic, but legally murky, form of protest by exposing security flaws in large corporations. Weev had already taken on Amazon, by writing a code that caused gay and lesbian books to disappear from the site (Amazon blamed a technical gaffe). His new goal was to publicly humiliate Apple, which his crew considered to be “subhuman scum” for, among other things, its opposition to “general computation.”

After finding the flaw in iPad security and distributing the list to Gawker, however, weev finally couldn’t wriggle free. Last March, just before his sentencing, weev took to a Reddit Ask Me Anything where he threatened that he wouldn’t be as nice the next time he hacked AT&T. The next day, federal prosecutors cited his brazen comments when pushing for a lengthy sentence of three and a half years. When weev recalls the judge, who is an African American, now, it’s another opportunity for trolling. “She’s a seditious fucking whore,” he says, eyes bulging, “and needs to be fucking lynched for the good of white fucking civilization everywhere, basically.” Then he leans calmly back in his chair and nibbles from a package of sliced pepperoni.

Weev insists he was happy to go to prison to support his cause, but he wasn’t willing to suffer in silence. “I’m being put into prison for speech and I wanted to continue speaking in prison,” he says. Once with the other prisoners in the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal facility in New York, he was prohibited from using the Internet or a cell phone, and limited to sending emails only through the monitored messaging system used in American prisons, the Trust Fund Limited Internet Computer System, or TRULINCS. For someone who grew up online and found his identity there, it was like being denied oxygen.

So weev found another way to connect. He gave out his account passwords to Meredith Patterson, a security researcher and software engineer, who would then simply post notes from weev to his Twitter account. “Free speech is the bulwark of a liberal society,” says Patterson, who was more than willing to help her friend. “It’s dangerous to let things fester in dark.”

Weev wasn’t the first to tweet like this from prison, but he was certainly the highest-profile hacker—and the most potent. The loophole he’d found wasn’t even against the rules. “They wished to silence my words at all costs,” he wrote on April 5, a few weeks after he began his sentence, “but it is clear now that I will not be silenced, ever.” Over the next few days, he sent out dozens of tweets, bitching about bran flakes (“Celiac’s in this place sucks”) and vowing to continue waging war (“Every day of this upcoming 3 years is worth it to defend the rights of the Internet. I’d do it all over again. IDIFTL” [“I Did It for the Lulz”]). Supporters retweeted him again and again, urging him to keep waging revolution.

Three days later, however, weev showed up to the computer room to find that his TRULINCS account had been terminated. (The Bureau of Prisons declined to comment for this story.) What the prison didn’t grok was the mind of a hacker. Being skilled isn’t just about knowing how to code; it’s about finding creative solutions to a problem.

Cochran, the GNAA president, was getting into a cab in her hometown of Chicago when her cell phone rang with a collect call from Brooklyn. It was weev with an idea: He wanted her to set up a system so that he could call a phone number, leave a recorded message, and then have that message uploaded to a SoundCloud account. No problem, she said, and, along with the help of hacktivist Kevin Gallagher, she got to work. “I thought it was brilliant,” Gallagher tells me. “It allowed him to keep connected with the outside world and keep trolling the government from behind bars.”

His first message appeared about a week after he had been banned from TRULINCS. “They have cut off my fucking TRULINCS access because of course we live in a country with a childishly authoritarian government that can’t handle anybody saying anything mean about it on the Internet,” he fumed.

To the wonder and glee of his followers online, weev continued to come at them “live from prison,” like some dot-com Johnny Cash, even after he was transferred to another facility, the Allenwood Federal Correctional Complex, a low-security prison in rural Pennsylvania. With his new outlet through SoundCloud, weev felt like he could breathe again; his life behind bars started to take shape. In Allenwood, he befriended a Deadhead in on LSD charges, who taught him how to play Dungeons & Dragons using paper dice. He taught members of the Aryan Brotherhood to sing “Springtime for Hitler” from the Mel Brooks movie The Producers. He says he earned cash selling homemade Greek yogurt he grew from mess hall scrapings (“I’m not going fucking years without eating Greek yogurt,” he tells me. “It’s, like, my favorite food!”). Whatever he earned he blew on prison heroin that others had smuggled inside. (Weev is unabashed about his drug use, but says he only did smack “now and then.”)

Two weeks after arriving, having found some kind of life on the inside, he was called into the lieutenant warden’s office: His SoundCloud magic act — which had recently been brought to the lieutenant’s attention — was over. He was now going far away from any human contact, online or otherwise: he was sent to solitary.

Tor Ekeland, weev’s attorney, was given no other explanation for his client being put in the special housing unit (SHU) other than that posting to SoundCloud counted as “abusing the telephone.” Weev was put into a 6-by-10-foot cell, allowed out for just 15 minutes three times a week to shower. With no books or writing supplies, he had nothing to help him survive but his own imagination. He did pushups, yoga, and transcendental meditation. It wasn’t the crappy food or lack of sunlight that truly got to him. It was being offline. “It’s fucking terrible,” he says.

Research shows that the weird effects of solitary confinement run deep. At a recent conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), researchers presented findings on how being in the SHU can fundamentally alter the brain. Humans are social beings, accustomed to interaction with each other and the natural world. Being cut off for even a short period can lead to irreversible brain atrophy; the brains of people who have been in solitary, the AAAS reported, are “literally shriveled.” Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz who studies the effects of solitary confinement, has found that inmates who have been in solitary confinement suffer from paranoia, cognitive dysfunction, self-harm, and hypersensitivity to stimulation after leaving the SHU. A California study found that while only 5 percent of the state’s prison population was in solitary confinement, those inmates accounted for half of its suicides.

What a case study on weev would find is anyone’s guess. After a week in the SHU — the longest he can remember being disconnected from the Net — he finally got pens, paper, and mail. Still, he struggled to adjust to analog communication. “The latency of paper letters,” he recalls. “You have to wait for it to arrive, and wait for the response. It’s bullshit.” The isolation clearly got to him. In a letter to security researcher Shane MacDougall, he wrote of feeling “completely alone and abandoned.” He feared that he was becoming obsolete. “Has the Internet forgotten about me,” he wrote, “or am I still a hot topic?”

Weev was released from the SHU after a few weeks, but he wasn’t back in the general population for long. In one of the first letters he wrote to a girlfriend, he says that he mentioned wishing death upon the houses of his enemies and praised Timothy McVeigh. “I think he’s a hero,” weev tells me, sipping a martini in a Brooklyn bar.

“So he’s heroic even though he killed all those children?” I ask.

“Correct, correct, yes,” he goes on, reddening in the face as he rails against the government. “What they do to us must be done asymmetrically to them. For every child they kill, there must be a thousand dead federal children. That should be the rule.”

Weev says the McVeigh letter landed him back in the SHU. This time, total isolation: no reading material, no letters, nothing but the four walls. Days became weeks, weeks became months, and months became a kind of madness. Weev tried to keep himself together in the ways he knew, shouting verses from Keats, Byron, and his favorite Norse poems, such as “Völundarkvitha.”

So long he sat that he fell asleep,
His waking empty of gladness was;
Heavy chains he saw on his hands,
And fetters bound his feet together.
“What men are they who thus have laid
Ropes of bast to bind me now?”

Desperate for stimulation, weev demanded his copy of The Art of Computer Programming, a dense tome he’d been sent earlier in prison — and one long and rich enough to occupy him for countless days and nights. But the prison would not give in. Out of options, with no way to hack his way out, weev resorted to the one last ploy prisoners have tried for centuries, the simplest of hacks. “I’m going on a hunger strike,” he finally told them, “for my book.”

Weev approached the strike like he was fasting for Lent. But the deprivation ended after only a week, when news came that he was getting out. The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that weev had been tried in the wrong federal court district — New Jersey — when he should have been tried in Arkansas, where the alleged crime took place. It was a technicality: The court did not address the charges themselves at all. No matter, the troll — angrier than ever — was free from his dungeon.

If Aaron Swartz has become hacktivism’s patron saint, weev remains its problem child. Spend a few hours in weev’s world and this is the kind of stuff you’ll hear:

On his backing of terrorist groups: “I’m a supporter of Hezbollah, through and through. Same with Hamas. I feel that the work they do is righteous and just.”

On why engineers make the best terrorists: “In the Middle East, the two most likely professions to become terrorists are doctors and engineers. Did you know that? You can Google that one. And the engineers are the ones that can successfully make a revolution, because somebody who can think methodically can analyze a situation, craft things, and come up with engineering solutions to political problems. The engineer, when he finally starts picking up his hammer to work, is a very frightening enemy.”

On his hedge fund TRO LLC, announced in April at the New York Stock Exchange, which he says will glean financial intelligence from the hacker underground: “I’m going to do what I normally do, which is talk shit on companies and laugh as the stock value falls. I’m hoping to short with lots of other people’s money so that I can get filthy fucking rich off the profits.” At press time, it’s not yet off the ground.

On revolution: “I’m not going to sit by and let a few banking dynasties ruin the Bill of Rights…I’m trying to catalyze a violent revolution, like I want people to pick up guns and murder the people who have become obstacles to liberty, and I am not fucking joking when I say that.”

One only needs to hear a single “Hail victory!” salute to wonder if this is just a big act of trolling, a fountain of bile intended to piss off and destroy just like those of generations of punks and pranksters. Weev cites Giordano Bruno, the 16th-century Italian philosopher burned for heresy, and Zeno of Elea, the pre-Socratic philosopher famous for his paradoxes, as inspirations. Others might see a through-line to his modern progenitors: Kaufman hurling misogynistic riffs in his wrestling skivvies, Sacha Baron Cohen orchestrating a sing-along of “Throw the Jew Down the Well” in a country bar as Borat. Yet there is a darker edge to weev, and a more troubling one.

Perhaps that’s what the government seized upon before sentencing him, elevating him into the public eye. It takes a lot to obscure weev, but for a while, the cause dwarfed the bombast, the trolling replaced by deeper questions of crime and punishment: Should exposing a security flaw really lead to two months of solitary confinement? What are the bounds of speech and exploration in the digital age? Is the joke on the government, or on us?

Don’t expect answers from the man himself. Weev likes to say that his “primary skill in life” is talking shit. “That’s what I do,” he tells me, over a bowl of vanilla ice cream.

“So should people believe everything you say?”

Weev falls silent for a moment, then replies with a straight face. “I’ve yet to be untruthful.”