Each day, so much online data is stolen, accidentally released, or otherwise abused that the Internet would appear to be mainly a tool for sending information to places it’s not supposed to go. But there is something particularly impressive about the illicit seven-gigabyte archive that, as of this writing, sits in eleven publicly accessible Google Drive folders. It’s a riveting tour of delicious, illicit tidbits with hundreds of pages of personal documents stolen from an oddly random collection of the famous and powerful: Colin Powell, George W. Bush, Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell, and some Rockefellers. The archive was assembled by a hacker who identified himself as Guccifer and who clearly saw it as a hacking masterpiece. Guccifer furtively amassed these reams of financial documents, personal e-mails, family photos, and contact lists like Edward Snowden stashing his hundreds of thousands of classified NSA documents. The two are information-age siblings, fraternal twins. But where one is a noble, ProPublica kind of information discloser, cloaked in earnest First Amendment garb, the other is a Graydon Carter, the host of a fabulous, scandalous party.
In early January, Guccifer sent links to the archive to media outlets around the world. He seemed to sense a coming blow and to want to ensure that his work would see the light. And he was right to publish his magnum opus. On January 22, a 40-year-old Romanian named Marcel Lazar Lehel was arrested on suspicion of being Guccifer, which was as remarkable and telling as the disclosures themselves: Why would a man from a small town in Romania even know who Candace Bushnell was?
If Snowden perfectly fit the profile of geek crusader, Lehel, a stone-faced, disheveled man in a tight leather jacket, seemed an odd candidate for one of the world’s most notorious hackers. But Guccifer is to hacking what the Beatles are to rock and roll. He had predecessors, 4Chan cowboys like Anonymous and Sabu of LulzSec, but he’s changed the nature of hacking fame. Guccifer rose by exploiting the connections people make online to infiltrate the private lives of some of the most powerful people on Earth. He served up the results to the media, irresistible high-low raw material for an online news cycle driven by leaks and voyeurism and racked by anxiety over privacy.
Guccifer’s first set of linked targets were two generations of the Bush clan. He leaked personal correspondence about George H.W. Bush’s health and family snapshots to the Smoking Gun. Pictures of George W. Bush’s amateurish oil paintings, initially branded with giant GUCCIFER watermarks, caused the biggest splash and instantly created a brand built on contradiction: Guccifer’s witty name, and his canny promotion of Bush’s paintings, hinted at an urbane mischievousness, as if he were a clandestine arm of TMZ. But his e-mails to the Smoking Gun were unhinged rants, laden with hackneyed conspiracy theories about the Council on Foreign Relations and the Illuminati: “The evil is leading this fucked up world!!!!!! I tell you this the world of tomorrow will be a world free of illuminati or will be no more.”
Guccifer chose targets with a similarly schizophrenic logic. Criminal hackers can usually be defined by their targets: For-profit “carders,” like the gang that stole 70 million customers’ credit-card data from Target, hit retail outlets or banks. Hacktivists attack ideological enemies. Jilted lovers break into exes’ Facebook accounts. But Guccifer’s targets—a seemingly random mix of political and media figures, Hollywood celebrities, and businesspeople—had nothing in common but a nominal level of prestige.
After the Bush hacks, Guccifer burned through a number of politicos, including Colin Powell, a U.N. undersecretary-general, and longtime Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal. His ire was distinctly nonpartisan: He leaked lovelorn e-mails a Romanian diplomat named Corina Cretu sent Powell during the Bush administration, forcing him to deny an affair. Memos from Blumenthal to Clinton about the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi briefly sparked excitement among conservative bloggers, until they turned out to be incredibly boring. Guccifer began by boasting about exposing a global conspiracy, but his biggest scoops were tabloid-ready gossip. Eventually, he dropped all political pretense, hacking Arrested Development star Jeffrey Tambor and celebrity editor Tina Brown, apparently just because he could.
Hacking, like journalism, can be about revelation—but a core motivation is often more self-interested: attention. Guccifer wanted to dominate the discussion, and he succeeded. He was extraordinarily media-savvy, cultivating relationships with outlets and seeding stories like a PR pro. His favorite outlet was the Smoking Gun, which posted often on his antics. After Gawker, where I worked at the time, picked up the Bush paintings, Guccifer sent us another, exclusive cache and kept us updated on future hacks, always beginning with the unsettling greeting “Guccifer transmitting …”
In some ways, Guccifer resembles the Hollywood hacker Christopher Chaney, most famous for leaking nude photos of Scarlett Johansson. Chaney, a bored and creepy Florida man who broke into dozens of actresses’ e-mail accounts in 2011, leaked his photos furtively, through underground celebrity-picture sites, claiming to be less interested in the attention than in the voyeuristic thrill.
Guccifer and Chaney shared other similarities. Like Chaney’s, Guccifer’s hacking is more like research. His notes show him assembling data gleaned from Wikipedia to guess passwords and security questions. Both Guccifer and Chaney also used a time-tested technique characteristic of the hacking spree: hopscotching. Once you crack one victim’s in-box, you raid their e-mails and contact lists for scraps of information that can help you move on to a new target.
The literal content of Guccifer’s revelations is rather trivial, but what he actually exposed are the pitfalls of connection, the panacea of the social-media age. Just as the NSA uses “contact chaining” to effortlessly sweep up the data of innocent people, Guccifer slipped from the contact list of one powerful, well-connected victim to the next. He fed on age-old fears about the power elite’s connections—the Illuminati, the NWO, etc.—and against all odds actually managed to uncover a hidden web.
What’s most shocking about the archive are the pilfered contact lists: thousands of e-mail addresses laid out on Excel spreadsheets named after the person they were stolen from. Among them are representatives from every prestigious domain name imaginable: @nytimes.com, @harvard.edu, @senate.gov, some with cell-phone numbers and Facebook-profile links. Here was the power elite, the Illuminati that he feared—and Candace Bushnell, too.
As I poked through the archive, an indicator at the top of the page showed I wasn’t alone: Eleven other anonymous users were browsing the archive, each with his own motivations, of which journalistic curiosity could only be the most benign.