Se7en Deadly Sins

By Matt Welch, OJR Contributing Writer

Posted March 25, 1999

Original: http://ojr.usc.edu/indexf.htm?/sections/features/99_stories/stories_hackseven_032599.htm

Mirror: http://mattwelch.com/OJRsave/OJRsave/HackerSe7en.htm

On Feb. 8, Wired News published an article by Steve Silberman that exposed one of the media's favorite hackers as a fraud.

Then a curious thing happened -- nothing.

For two years, "Christian Valor," a.k.a. "Se7en," had mesmerized reporters with his Robin Hood tales of illegally trashing the hard drives of online child porn traders and leaving images of pythons on their screens while law enforcement officials winked and looked the other way.

Silberman himself fell for the compelling story in 1997, as did The Independent of London, The Discovery Channel Canada Online, Newsday, The Salt Lake Tribune, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Florida Today, the Florida Times-Union, the Buffalo News, the Albany Times Union and ^ irony of ironies Forbes Digital Tool's Adam Penenberg, the respected online journalist who exposed New Republic writer Stephen Glass as a fraud last year by investigating a fantastistical story Glass wrote about teen hackers.

Several weeks ago, Se7en's ex-girlfriend, Lisa Rabey, wrote e-mails to the reporters who had profiled him, saying that she was prepared to "sing" about his lies. Silberman moved on the story first, getting Rabey to tell him that her ex's exploits "never happened." The veteran Wired News reporter (who has since moved to Wired magazine) collected similar testimony from two of Se7en's former colleagues, then confronted him.

Faced with a damning stack of evidence, the hacker who had once boasted that "I can find a pedophile and trash his machine all within 60 minutes," was forced to admit that what little anti-porn crusading he did "wasn't even really hacking."

How did the burned newspapers and Web sites respond? With silence. Meanwhile, an article touting Se7en's work appeared in the April issue of Popular Mechanics.

With the exception of Penenberg, who immediately posted an apology and explanation of his reporting methods on hacker mailing lists, not one of the aforementioned publications had published a single word about Silberman's revelations as of posting time, according to OJR searches on their Web sites and in the Dow Jones Interactive library, as well as queries to the papers themselves.

A year after publishing profiles with headlines such as "The Curse of Se7en" and "Se7en's Sins Are Deadly For Child-Porn Dealers," these news outlets haven't found it necessary to let their readers know that the subject of their enthusiasm is now an admitted liar.

Bill Dowd, associate editor of the Albany Times Union, said his paper has no "statute of limitations" on errors, wire story or original, and that Silberman's findings will be reviewed to see if a correction for the Times-Union's article on Se7en is called for.

None of the other U.S. newspapers listed above responded to OJR's questions.

Nyla Ahmad, who wrote a piece for The Discovery Channel Canada asserting Se7en's spurious claims as fact and paraphrasing sections and quotes from Penenberg's original story [See "Discovering Similarities" sidebar], defended her work by explaining that it wasn't really an "article."

"I did not write an article on Christian Valor but rather I reviewed Web sites and articles posted online for a TV column," Ahmad wrote. "My short segment was a 'backgrounder' to the Christian Valor issues, and it ran just before a studio interview with him."

Penenberg, who has written several articles revealing the inaccuracies and fabrications of print journalists covering tech issues, said Digital Tool will post a retraction.

"We discussed it and decided we shouldn't merely pull the story from our archive, because that would be disingenuous," Penenberg said. "Instead, we are adding a retraction to the story so that anyone looking for the story will find it."

Besides being the only reporter to publicly fess up following Silberman's article, Penenberg is also notable among Se7en profilers because his original story was heavily sourced; it also noted that "detractors claim that Valor is a media junkie whose claims far outweigh his technical abilities."

When Silberman alerted Penenberg to his findings, the Forbes senior editor promised to hold off writing his apology until his Wired colleague published his expose.

"It was a brave and noble thing for Adam to have done," Silberman said via e-mail.

,p>Besides being literally ignored by the press who'd covered Se7en before, Silberman's scoop fell on surprisingly deaf ears in the echo chamber of the Internet media world.

"As far as why my story didn't get picked up, I'm not sure," he said. "Perhaps it couldn't really be followed up. Perhaps another Net-fraud didn't seem like news. Perhaps these publications weren't interested in publicizing the fact that they'd gone with single sources.",/p>

The main print offender was Newsday, which published a Feb. 25, 1998, story that had only one named source ^ Christian Valor ^ despite the fact that the article touched on two of the most often misunderstood topics: child pornography and hacking. Yet it was sent across the wires and picked up by all the other U.S. newspapers listed above.

Newsday reporter Matthew McAllester, who then covered tech news but now heads the paper's Middle East bureau, says he screwed up.

"

In the time I covered the Net I wrote a lot about how people can be, and often are, duped online," McAllester wrote in an e-mail. "So it's very humbling to have fallen for a hoax myself. Mea culpa. Obviously, I didn't do enough checking."

The person who is perhaps most familiar with Se7en's wild statements is his ex-roommate and former colleague Brian Martin, a hacker who publishes a site called Errata, which is dedicated to tracking errors made by tech media and lies spread by self-styled hackers, such as Se7en, who trade on their notoriety by collecting computer security lecture fees.

In October, after holding his tongue for more than a year while working alongside Se7en at security firm New Dimensions International, Martin published the first entry related to Se7en on his "Charlatans" page.

"The final straw was there appeared to be no repercussions for [Se7en] doing it," Martin said over e-mail. "Finally, I said 'screw it' and decided to take the risk. That risk being loss of work with the company. I simply got tired of his lies and his media whoring with no skills to back it up."

On his site, Martin picks apart years worth of quotes from Se7en.

"I have warned Se7en many times that lying to people, especially his friends, was not a good thing," Martin writes on Charlatans. "Despite these warnings, he continued to do it until he had alienated himself completely. Now, he remains almost alone, still lying to his clients and media trying to eke out a living."

Martin takes a fairly dim view of the reporters who swallowed Se7en's zingers.

"So far, Steven and Adam are the only ones who have handled [the retractions] at all, and both did so exceptionally well I think," Martin said.

Also impressed by the two online reporters is "Space Rogue," the editor and publisher of Hacker News Network, another site that tries to separate hacker fact from fiction.

"To see a respected traditional journalist stand up and say 'I was wrong and what I reported was bogus,' takes one hell of a lot of guts," Space Rogue said of Penenberg by e-mail.

Avoiding mistakes when covering hackers can be difficult. The hacker community is self-consciously cloak-and-dagger, and rife with internal conflicts and rivalries.

"Basically, there is no verification a journalist can do with hacker stories," Martin said. "Unless they meet with the hacker and get solid proof and witness the deed, they go on word alone."

Penenberg has taken Martin's advice to heart; he now refuses to write about the exploits of hackers without witnessing their abilities first-hand. On March 19, for instance, he published an article about watching a hacker take over the massive online auction company e-Bay for two minutes.

"Even for journalists who cover hackers it's really easy to get taken," Penenberg said. "There's this kinda like 'oh, this is such a cool world that I can't be a part of.' [Hackers] sound really mysterious and scary, but all they're really doing is investigating computer security. It's not all that mysterious."

Weeks after Silberman's expose [put accent], Popular Mechanics published an article about hackers stating that "Valor spent 17 years in the hacker underground" and that his "crusade has led other hackers to join the fight."

"What is alarming is that I feel like my story is still contributing to the problem," Penenberg said.

Given the soft bounce on Silberman's expose, and the paucity of corrected online archives, it is possible we will be hearing about "Christian Valor, cyber-vigilante" for some time to come.

"Even now that his lack of computer skills is out in the open and has been publicized," Space Rogue said, "some reports are still publishing this garbage labeling him as a great hacker hero for attacking the scum of the earth."


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