On the day that he joined forces with the hacker collective Anonymous, Hector Xavier Monsegur walked his two little girls half a dozen blocks to their elementary school. “My girls,” he called them, although they weren’t actually his children. Monsegur, then 27, had stepped in after their mother—his aunt—returned to prison for heroin dealing.
After he dropped off the girls, he walked to his apartment at 90 Avenue D, in the Jacob Riis projects, where he’d lived virtually his entire life. He passed through the dimly lit lobby, took the beat-up elevator to his floor, and went into apartment 6F. Monsegur’s prized possession was a computer, dilapidated but serviceable, its keyboard missing the shift, 7, and L keys. He sat down and went to work.
In the projects, Hector Monsegur was far from a tough guy. He was a bit of a nerd, in fact. But online he became an entirely different person—Sabu, he’d christened himself. “I’m a wild nigga,” he typed in a December 2010 chat. “Everyone knows me for my behavior … and I’m here like a pit bull wanting to own,” which is to take over other people’s computers and, sometimes, their entire identities.
The same month Monsegur typed those words, Anonymous, which had been up and running for a couple of years, was planning what hackers hoped would be its most dramatic attack yet, on PayPal and certain credit-card companies, in retaliation for their suspending services to WikiLeaks. Sabu, along with 4,500 other hackers and volunteers from around the world, activated a simple program that, when launched, would bombard PayPal’s site with requests—“packeting,” Sabu called it—overloading its servers.
The PayPal attack was not a rousing success—the site slowed for a couple of hours on December 8, 2010, but Monsegur was inspired and pushed ahead with other attacks. Within six months, he became perhaps the most influential hacker in the world, leading hacker actions against multinational companies and governments, helping turn Anonymous into a cross between an outlaw gang and a worldwide protest movement. And then, after he was arrested, he became an FBI informant—and he was gifted at that, too.
That one of the world’s most influential hackers was the denizen of a New York City housing project struck many as cognitively dissonant. It shouldn’t have. In many ways, he’s a product of the culture of poverty he was brought up in. It’s a culture that produces outlaws of many different stripes. Monsegur was born in 1983, when his father was 16. His mother deserted the family, and his father entrusted his son to Monsegur’s grandmother Irma, 40 at the time. Irma, born in Puerto Rico, never mastered English, but she was devoted to her grandson, a quiet, well-behaved child whom everyone called Bubi. But child care was not his grandmother’s only vocation. She was “a player,” as a family lawyer said, and her apartment was a stash house for the family’s heroin business. Sabu’s father was a lead distributor, as was his aunt, a long-haired beauty; Monsegur was described as a delivery boy. Heroin was good business, and for a time, “the family was really powerful in the hood,” said a neighbor. Sabu’s father led the life of a successful entrepreneur, seeming to change cars and women monthly. He liked to peel bills from a wad of cash and treat all the neighborhood kids to ice cream.
In 1997, the high life abruptly ended when the family was busted. Monsegur’s grandmother escaped with probation. But his father, then 30, was sentenced to at least seven years in state prison, as was his aunt, 27. Monsegur was 13 years old. He was a big kid—as an adult, he’d be six feet tall and heavy, pushing 250 pounds. He could hold his own in the projects, but he didn’t quite fit in. “He didn’t play sports with the rest of us,” said a neighbor who grew up with him. “He wasn’t a hood kid. He was a brain. If you talk to him, he don’t talk like us. He talk educated.”
For Monsegur, the computer was his refuge. “When he closed his eyes, he could see Sweden and Tunisia,” said Stanley Cohen, a lawyer who’s known him for years. Even as a teenager, Monsegur had awesome computer skills—at 14, he taught himself to program in Linux, the open-source operating system, and hacked his way to a free Internet connection. His hacking life began in earnest the next year, 1999, after a Puerto Rican was accidentally killed during a botched bombing run by a Marine Corps plane near a test range on the island of Vieques. The incident spurred protests in Vieques as well as in some Puerto Rican neighborhoods, and Monsegur joined in online. It was, he later wrote, his political awakening. He went on a defacing spree, substituting his own homepage for those of random sites—he became a kind of online graffiti artist. On one defaced site, he announced, “I’ll be your Puerto Rican defacer.” He continued tentatively. “Hello, I am ‘Sabu,’ no one special for now,” he wrote on one site. But then he shifted into another gear. “The U.S.A. has treated Puerto Rico and it’s citicenz like shit.” The message concluded with a plea: “all I want is the respect that I deserve,” he wrote, then threatened: “Or should I take it by force?”