Hacker's remorse

When a Hotmail security breach exposed e-mail inboxes, I spied on a rival and learned more than I wanted to know.

Published September 2, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

On Monday morning, a headline about the now-infamous hole in Hotmail stopped me in my tracks. Within three minutes of reading about it on the CNN site, I found the magic code at Slashdot.org, pasted the script into my browser and substituted the phrase "ENTERLOGINHERE" with a Hotmail user name.

(Microsoft's spinmeisters told reporters that trespassers were accessing Hotmail accounts "through specific knowledge of advanced Web development languages." Far from being a sophisticated hacker, I'm a middle-aged boomer chick whose closest brush with code prior to this had been writing WordPerfect macros.)

I hit "Enter" and seconds later my arch-enemy's Hotmail inbox appeared in my monitor.

Early this summer I had gone East to hang out with some longtime buddies from the mother of all incestuous mailing lists. At a reunion the year before I'd had a passionate encounter with a list member named Tom. We had a moderately sweaty reunion the night I got there this summer as well.

But this year the list's new coquette, Ashley, was there too. She was in her mid-20s, unemployed and had been slacking in Prague. I'd already suffered her "self-obsessed petulant unemployed list-babe" persona electronically. She was blonde and pretty. When we met in June, we exchanged fake smiles and went on our ways. Then she put the moves on Tom.

He ditched me faster than Microsoft can duck bad press. I had 20 lbs. and 20 years on her and yeah, I was pissed. Worse, this was a touchy-feely mailing list and I was under pressure to "be evolved." Although I'd never had strong romantic feelings for Tom, my ego was a tad purple around the edges. The replaced-by-a-young-babe thing made me feel old.

Back home, I immersed myself in enjoyable solo pursuits. Through the e-grapevine and Tom's giddy posts full of smiley emoticons, I heard of astronomical phone bills and continued romance. Ashley announced their August rendezvous to the list: "While I'm on the road, you can reach me through my Hotmail account."

Face to face with Ashley's inbox, at first I felt euphoric. I tore through her e-mail, finding a scathing letter from a bitter ex-boyfriend, who laid claim to betrayal and money owed him. I poked around a folder of love notes exchanged with another man, also a member of the mailing list, and saw plans for an impending tryst. And I found overtures from Ashley to another half-dozen guys, usually including a phrase along the lines of, "I must be honest with you: I find you very attractive."

But then something happened: I started feeling sorry. Sorry for her for being in her 20s and for having had her personal e-mail exposed. Sorry for the guys she was playing like a Stradivarius. Sorry for myself that I'd ever been jealous of her.

When the hole in Hotmail was closed about 40 minutes later, I felt sickened by suddenly having way too much info. I thought of John Cheever's short story "The Enormous Radio," about the high-strung housewife who becomes obsessed with listening to her neighbors' private conversations.

Worst of all, I felt saddened by the speed with which I'd committed an ethical lapse, given the opportunity. I was guilty of a moral felony, if not a legal one. And yet I'd been amped during the experience; for a while I had wallowed in the power and glory of a successful hack.

Late Monday, Microsoft continued to downplay the Hotmail hack in a statement published by Reuters: "We're hoping that because we jumped on it so quickly no one was affected."

Fat chance.

By "Lily Black"

"Lily Black" is a pseudonym.

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