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.

By "Lily Black"
September 2, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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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.)

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.


"Lily Black"

"Lily Black" is a pseudonym.

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