The decision was this: with my capacity for subversion, my talent for thinking laterally, and my skill with computers, what do I do? Do I become a coder, or a hacker? Build systems, or break them?
I faced this question ten years ago, at the age of sixteen. I was at college, and my friend and I had just hacked into the Administrator account of the network.
At first I saw it as a choice between creation and destruction. Then I realised this was my Christian indoctrination talking. I looked at the other students. We were destined knowledge workers. A job, a salary, a wife and kids, a house. Retirement. Death unnoticed by the world at large, just as in life. I thought: that sounds boring as Hell.
My alternative was to remain in the system superficially, and subvert it wholeheartedly. Play inside and stay outside. This would be a life of excitement, of notoriety, the stuff of legends.
I do not do things by halves.
I knew that choosing this path would pit myself against the rest of the world. When you defy to this extreme, all society turns against you. Legal systems and governments become your enemy. Like a Russian mole or an insurgent, you must become paranoid, and to safeguard your freedom, you must be ready to flee at a moments notice.
My pulse quickened when I considered this choice. To live like that, to live on the edge! I looked at the people around me, and at my friend and partner in crime, headed for expulsion and a career of petty theft. I was smarter than that. I would do it right.
And so I did.
Back then the 'Net was young and naive. Cyberspace was a sovereign, virgin territory, untouched by old regimes of power and free from the crushing constraints of reality, or so I thought at the time.
I stopped paying attention to my lessons in Turbo Pascal and Microsoft Access. I turned my attention to C, sockets, buffer overflows, port scanners, PBX tricks, the list goes on and on.
Thus I began my career as a hacker. I started with easy systems, in small companies with modems and leased lines, and I limited myself to jurisdictions with no extradition treaties with the UK.
I was careful, and I did it right. I was not caught. I did not allow myself to be caught.
Two months in I took over my first network. This I will never forget. A tingling feeling of absolute power, invincibility, pride and satisfaction in your abilities: the security of the system become air, nothingness, entropy - this was the feeling of victory. This feeling is an addiction hard-wired into our genes. It's Darwin at work, evolution in action. I wanted more.
I quit college. I stacked shelves in the supermarket, and built up my savings. I kept them in cash, in a safe deposit box - bank cards are traceable.
From the first small networks I launched my forays into bigger and better targets. Back then things were easier than they are today. I was as careful as I could be, but I was less experienced than I am now.
Now I always watch the target's switchboard if I'm inside their system. Out of habit, I never login from the same place twice in a row. I write my trojan horses to wipe themselves, to vanish into thin air, at the first sign of interference or monitoring.
I was also arrogant. I compared myself favourably to other hackers, who boasted on IRC all the time. They were loudmouths, idiots heading for a fall. I never joined in, but observed from a distance.
I watched them get busted. I was never busted. I did it right.
My arrogance was my biggest weakness. Months of wading through small-time paraphernalia without a hint of detection or retribution made it seem like another world. In real life, sure: I lived with my parents, I had no friends, let alone a girlfriend, and sure - actions had their consequences. Out there on the 'Net, I was a master cat thief, a ghost in the shadows, no more than a trick of the light that appeared for a millisecond, and then was gone.
Eight months later, I cracked the network of a fledgling Indian consultancy. I had close to a hundred networks under my control. I felt I was ready to try for something bigger. I decided to start probing for weaknesses in the network of DERA - the DEfence Research Agency, the smaller UK equivalent of DARPA, the creators of the Internet.
This was really, really dumb. While the small fish didn't know or didn't care, if there was anybody in the UK with the ability to track me down, it was them. I didn't realise that governments are mean, tireless beasts with inhuman patience and practically infinite resources. It never occurred to me that the Russians and the Chinese attacked them every single day, or that attacks from faraway places would attract more attention than those from closer to home.
Heedless of all this, I dived in head first. There exist people and countries that would have paid me for the work I was doing, but at the time I would have refused any offers. I considered myself a purist.
The system was bigger and more complex than the ones I was used to. I had more potential points of entry, and a wider choice of targets. It took me a month to chart it all. Eventually I found a flaw that got me past their primary firewall. They had a route to a university they'd partnered with on a research project. The undergrads there were lax in their precautions. This gave me access to all their work, and a foothold at DERA.
I had a part of their network, but I wanted it all.
I can remember exactly how the next sequence of events happened. It was five in the morning. I was inside the DERA network. I'd found a buffer overflow in a library used by Kerberos, written a chunk of code to exploit the vulnerability and tested it on my own computer at home. I was trying to make it work on DERA's central authentication server, but the shellcode wasn't executing. My connection was slower than normal. I'd been banging my head against a brick wall for hours on end.
In my frustration I had logged into their network, and was hammering away at the server from a remote computer. Tweak, run. Observe side-effects. Lather, rinse, repeat. Slowly but surely I was making progress. The landing pad length seemed to change every time I delivered the payload, and so I was trying many random sizes, first ten at a time, then a hundred.
I lost track of time completely. Normally I never spent more than half an hour at a time logged in, but I had used the same TTY for more than four hours. I was bouncing through the Indian consultancy. I didn't know that in India, it was morning, and people were in the office, ready to answer phones and watch me use their network.
I had configured my script to try random landing pads indefinitely until one of them worked, and was in the act of running it, when my Bash prompt disappeared. I swore in frustration. I tried to reconnect. Nothing happened. Then my pipe through India dropped.
I took in a deep breath and leant back exhausted, and as I exhaled and leant forwards, my bleary eyes squinting at the code, the phone rang in the downstairs hall.
I froze. I was stunned. In the silence that followed the first ring my first thought was "no..." At the second ring I jerked up from my chair, scattering notes and spilling coffee on the carpet. By the third ring I was half out of my bedroom. At the fourth ring I reached the phone, lifted the receiver, and jammed my finger on the switch in the headset rest, cutting the call and silencing the phone.
Held my finger there for five full seconds and then let go. Set the receiver down by the telephone, off the hook. No more calls.
I stood there, half-naked, shivering, and listened for any sound that would tell me that my parents had been woken up. The dialtone hummed quietly from the receiver.
I'm coming to stuff that's difficult for me to put into words. It's over nine years ago that I found myself there, my two worlds collided with all the mental violence of a train wreck. Next Friday will be ten years to the day that I took the decision, and I've lived by it ever since. I knew that it was all or nothing. I knew that to stay free, I might need to run. I told myself that I would run if I had to. And I did.
You'll never truly miss your family until they're gone. But I considered myself separate from all that. At 17, I was rebelling, I didn't need them and they didn't understand me. This may have been true but there are times when I see a kid playing with his Dad in the park, hear the delighted child's laughter and see the love in their faces and something in my chest becomes so tight I can't breathe, so painful I can't move, that I can't watch, and I turn away and I blink back tears and I get angry, angry at myself, at the world, all of it, and walk back home with fists clenched in my pockets. When this happens I find oblivion somehow and try and forget that any of it exists.
The phone didn't wake my parents. After five minutes of dead silence I moved. I cleaned up the coffee. I moved everything on to one disk drive and took that from the computer to take with me. I packed as many of my clothes as possible into a sports bag. I put on boots and warm clothes. I let myself out of the house as quietly as possible, leaving my computers turned on and endlessly wiping their disks, over and over again.
Then I walked into town, waited for the bank to open and emptied my safe deposit box, which contained just short of two thousand pounds.
Then I posted a letter to my parents. I intended to be out of the country by the time they read it. I won't reproduce it here. In essence I told them that I had to leave, that it wasn't their fault, that I was sorry, and that I loved them. My brothers and my sister I forgot to mention completely, which I regret to this day. And with that I took a train to Dover, a ferry to Calais, and I haven't set foot in England since.
Two thousand pounds doesn't last very long at all. Not in a country where you can't speak the language, where there's no source of income, and the future's uncertain. I only ever lived with my parents, and this was brutal to wake up to.
But I survived. I found a job, working in black and being paid in cash. I didn't stop hacking.
I once considered myself a purist. That changes when going hungry gets boring. There are certain base necessities, at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy, which take priority over idealistic principles. So to support myself I started freelancing.
Looking back I've done OK for myself. I built up a network of contacts, and I've done some truly crazy stuff, either by myself or with other people. I have plenty of good stories, but nobody to tell them to. Once this Boris paid us to plant American bugs in the Berlaymont building, and two weeks later an American handed us some vintage KGB gear for the exact same purpose. There are so many stories, and I would so love to tell them all.
There are downsides. I've had four more close shaves since I first came over the channel. I'm still ready to run at a moments notice. I have to be like that if I want to stay free, but it's a dehabilitating necessity. Sometimes, I think that a life built in such an absence of security is no life at all.
I chose to live life on the edge. Almost ten years later, I am still on the edge, and the vertigo is getting to me. It's both constantly tiring and never less than terrifying. It's an incredible weight on my shoulders, and more than anything I get sick of pretending, sick of hiding my true self, and of never sharing anything about myself with anybody.
But this is the life I chose. I can live with the consequences. I must. It's no longer just the UK who are looking for me now. Various other agencies have pinned down my modus operandi and follow my career with interest. Last I saw it, my file at Interpol was about fifteen megabytes when exported to PDF.
I've haven't spoken to anyone back home since I left. I haven't dared to. Their lives continue without me. I've missed the funerals of two grandparents.
Although they don't know it, I do keep track of my family. My sister, the youngest, she's just finishing college. One of my brothers is in university, the other is working in computers. Unlike me he's looking after the college network, helping teachers and students, and securing systems instead of breaking into them.
I wonder about my family a lot. They must know I'm still alive, at least if they read the newspapers. I wonder if they want to see me again, since I've caused them so much pain, and since it's been such a long time.
I often wonder what would happen if I just showed up for dinner one day. Sometimes I'm sure the reaction would be terrible, an outburst of fury, tearful screamed accusations and shouted epithets, and I normally feel that that this is what I would deserve.
There are other times when I imagine they'd just be happy to see their son back. I could almost cry at the thought of seeing their smiles, watching them scrap over the dinner table, hugging Mum and Dad with all my strength, as if I wasn't ever going to let them go.
But this is just a dream. I miss them so much. It's just a dream, but if I thought it was possible then I'd be ready go back, just to live that dream for one moment, no matter the cost. The choices we make stay with us forever, and there's no going back.