The big election 2008 news last week was the hacking of Governor Sarah Palin's email account. Being a geek I was curious how the deed was done because I was curious, but mostly because I have a Yahoo! email account and wanted to know what to look out for.
The hacker in question detailed how he hacked the account on the /b/ forum over at 4chan.org. He used a single proxy server to hide his trail, then clicked on "Forgot your ID or password?". From there the helpful wizard prompted him for answers to private questions that were readily available on the internet — questions like Palin's birthdate and zip code. The rest he took informed guesses at. If you are interested in how it was done, then I recommend reading this link.
Unfortunately for the hacker, when people demanded proof he supplied screenshots that had a portion of his proxy session in the URL field. The owner of the proxy was none too happy about all the heat being brought down on him, so he supplied the Secret Service and FBI with the information they needed to track the hacker down.
So far focus has been on one individual: David Kernell, a 20 year old college student from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. His father, a Democrat state representative, has verified that his son is a person of interest in the matter. Not much more information is known, but David does have vulgar comments about Palin on his MySpace page, and claims to be a "Obamacrat" on his FaceBook page. For bloggers on the far right, this is all the proof they need, and they've been dredging up photos and information about this young man all weekend. The vitriol has been flying high.
That is the story so far, but what caught my attention was an entry on a long abandoned blog attributed to Kernell:
Sunday, June 15, 2003
this page is dedicated to showing what has happend to scociety these days, now i am not going to be a hipicrit here and say im "fair and balanced" like FOX news, it is imposible to do so, we are humans and are very falable, but less than perfect is better than nothing...I am not afraid to say that i have acute depression and have been institutionalized twice, one at th age of 9 in Texas and one this past year. I have been strugleing with this for my entire life...
I don't know if Kernell is the infamous Palin email hacker, and frankly, since he hasn't been charged nobody does either. However, I remember being fifteen. I can't imagine being institutionalized at ages 9 and 15, but I can relate with anger at society. I wrote dark, morbid poetry. I despised authority. I hated school and 99% of the student body. I did, however, spell better than Kernell at that age. I had that much going for me. I was also lucky that I grew up in the years prior to affordable PC ownership. I didn't own a computer, but sure wished I could hack like that kid in Wargames.
A mistake, in my opinion, that people make when humanizing a criminal by learning about his or her background is that they begin to feel pity for the criminal — as if the criminal was not entirely at fault — as if the criminal was a mere victim of circumstance. I ran into this when I wrote about the Virginia Tech gunman (If the Virginia Tech Gunman Was On Meds, Does That Get Him Off the Hook?). There was a multitude of people that wanted to give the gunman a pass because he was clinically depressed. I wouldn't do that then, and I won't do that here.
As a once angry kid myself, I know I began to grow up when I stopped blaming everybody for my problems and took responsibility for my actions. If life wasn't fair then I had to just deal with it. I can probably thank my religion, family, and friends that I never did anything too outlandishly criminal, but I was no angel. At any rate, giving in to my anger and depression only made me more miserable. I began to seek professional help to deal with my ADHD. Then I became disabled when treating my newly identified Depression in tandem with ADHD produced life altering side-effects.
The only way I pulled myself out of that hole was to retrain my mind and change the way I thought. One way to picture the process is to imagine my mind was a scale tipped over on the sad side. It took a lot of work to fill the happy side with any weight before I found balance. This alleged email hacker seems to have his scale so far over on the angry and miserable side that it's very likely welded there. So much venom. So much hate.
I'm glad I'm not that angry young fifteen year old anymore. Those were dark days. I hope that I can help my own teenagers avoid that pitfall by teaching them to be positive minded even in the face of adversity. David Kernell seemed to wallow in his mood. He may have found focus with political partisanship as a young adult, but it doesn't seem to be working very well for him.
For more information:
David Kernell's Blog
Investigating David Kernell
The Tennessean News Report
Update: Sunday morning, the FBI served a search warrant to David Kernell's residence. According to witnesses, "Kernell and his friends fled the apartment when the FBI agents arrived." Not the brightest of moves. More information can be found here.
Update: Kernell has now officially hired a lawyer, but no further information is available. Hiring a lawyer is usually considered a smart move and not indicative of guilt. Regardless of whether he is guilty of hacking Sarah Palin's account or not, he has been politically active as "Rubico" on the internet which is the name of the hacker in question. Even if Kernell is proven innocent, the damage to his father's political career will be extensive. At this time, the press has not taken up the meme of "Oh! He was depressed!".
Update October 8, 2008: Kernell turned himself in and was arraigned today. He plead not guilty to hacking Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's personal e-mail account. To date there has been no mention of his bout with Depression as a young man. Further information can be read here. An update will be on that site on the 9th.
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