“The Hacker is Watching” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 25)

From increasingly powerful mobile phones to free FaceTime or Skype video chats to inexpensive GPS navigation tools, we’re living in a time where a lot of science fiction of our childhoods has become reality. For tech geeks like me, we live in a golden age. We’re instantly connected with the rest of the world in ways unthinkable decades ago. But the flip side to this is the threat of viruses, malware, and hacking that stir up our worst paranoia and fears, sometimes with good reason.

A woman in her underwear, getting dressed

Photo by Jason Madara for GQ

The Hacker is Watching by David Kushner in the January 2012 issue of GQ looks at a chilling tale of someone who managed to hack into the webcams and personal files of hundeds of users around the world. And not only did he violate other people’s privacy, he connected them directly with demands and threats, terrorizing them, it seemed, wherever they went.

What makes this interesting and effective is that Kushner starts off the piece from the perspective the victims, facing an invisible, powerful threat:

How would you feel, how would you behave, if the devices that surround your life were suddenly turned against you?

It’s a question that James Kelly and his girlfriend, Amy Wright, never thought they’d have to entertain. But one instant message changed everything. Amy, a 20-year-old brunette at the University of California at Irvine, was on her laptop when she got an IM from a random guy nicknamed mistahxxxrightme, asking her for webcam sex. Out of the blue, like that. Amy told the guy off, but he IM’d again, saying he knew all about her, and to prove it he started describing her dorm room, the color of her walls, the pattern on her sheets, the pictures on her walls. “You have a pink vibrator,” he said. It was like Amy’d slipped into a stalker movie. Then he sent her an image file. Amy watched in horror as the picture materialized on the screen: a shot of her in that very room, naked on the bed, having webcam sex with James.

The story shift quickly to the other side of the camera, where the reader is introduced to 32-year-old Luis Mijangos, who grew up in Mexico City and immigrated to Santa Ana, California. He isn’t revealed as a mustache-twirling villain, but rather, a complex person whose story is, if not sympathetic, somewhat understandable. Mijangos, whose father died from torture by drug cartels, was paralyzed from the waist down when he was sixteen, a victim of a gang violence crossfire in the streets of Mexico City. You don’t have to condone or approve of what he did, but by the end of the story, the reader can see why he did it.

Kushner profiles Mijangos, from his childhood to the present, and as he traces the outlines of his story, conveys the sense of power the growing hacking skills gave Mijangos:

Mijangos had one thing to help make him an expert hacker: time, and plenty of it. He spent all day in his wheelchair, digging deeper online. Hackers coalesced as teams, just like his old soccer club, and Mijangos printed up a T-shirt with the name of his squad, cc power (as in credit card)…

He wasn’t getting rich, but Mijangos says he earned enough to buy a $5,000 titanium wheelchair that he tricked out with $400 wheels. He felt reborn. “When it comes to hacking, yes, I’m not going to deny it—it’s like you feel like you accomplish something,” he says. “Like you feel proud of doing something that not many people can do.”

And as Mijango’s hacking becomes more expansive and invasive, it fuels his ego. His activities continue to give him a sense of power he lacked in everyday life:

An infection that had started with one victim spread to hundreds. For a guy stuck in a chair, it was like playing a real-life game of The Sims. He spent his days alone, watching up to four webcams, each one trained on a different victim. Sex became just a part of the thrill. He saw them crying, studying, or sitting on the can (apparently a lot of people take laptops into the bathroom). Eavesdropping on the everyday moments of their lives, in a way, felt most intimate of all. “Those people that I was able to watch on a daily basis,” he says, “I felt that they become like my friends.” Mijangos watched for hours as women slept or read; he was living his own twisted version of Rear Window, the lonely guy in a wheelchair staring out his glowing portal.

The story is thought-provoking. It doesn’t make you like Mijango or feel he doesn’t deserve punishment for his crimes, but it does humanize a threat that most of us usually think of as remote and faceless. It’s a eye-opening read, and one that may prompt you to cover up your webcam lens, just to be safe.

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