Lauri Love: The Chronicle of a student accused of hacking the US
A brilliant but fragile computer science student from a rural English town who at one time faced a likely life imprisonment in the US? Computer Weekly spoke to Lauri Love
NOTE: This interview was prior to winning an appeal against his extradition to US
Lauri Love was in his dressing gown drinking coffee when a UPS delivery man arrived at the door of his parents’ house in Stradishall, Suffolk, in October 2013.
He was already feeling tired and frustrated after completing his mind-numbing first day on a compulsory work scheme for people claiming disability benefits.
When Love reached out for the package, the delivery man said: “You’re being arrested under the Computer Misuse Act.”
A dozen officers from the National Crime Agency, Britain’s equivalent of the FBI, poured into the house. They found one computer logged into an online chatroom using a nickname, it was later claimed, that was associated with a hacking group, and fleetingly saw file structures that were allegedly stolen from the US Federal Reserve on another machine.
Love’s first thought was for his parents, Alexander, a Baptist minister and chaplain at nearby Highpoint prison, and Sirkka-Liisa, a teacher.
“Most Christian people have only had positive experiences with the police and have not had a house ransacked, so I didn’t want them to be too distressed and upset,” says Love.
His mind went into overdrive as he tried to look after his parents, while also making sure the police read him his rights, cautioned him and did not ask questions they were not legally entitled to ask.
“They asked me questions about my computer and encryption and whether I would give them the unlock code for my phone, which they shouldn’t really do,” says Love.
Love faces life sentence in jail
Three years later, Love, now 31 years old, faces extradition to the US and a possible 99-year prison sentence.
Indictments filed in New York, the Eastern District of Virginia and New Jersey accuse Love of breaking into computer systems belonging to US government agencies, including the FBI, the Federal Reserve Bank and the Missile Defense Agency.
The case is the first serious test of the “forum bar”, introduced by the then home secretary, Theresa May, to allow UK citizens to challenge US extradition requests, following hacker Gary McKinnon’s 10-year battle against extradition.
Love’s father told Westminster Magistrates’ Court in June 2016 that he was in no doubt his son would take his own life if he was sent to the US.
“In the past 30 years of being a minister, having to take funerals of people who have committed suicide, [I have seen] the regrets that individuals have are because they did not see it coming. In Lauri’s case, we do see it coming. That is the difficulty,” he says.
Different from the other kids
Although Love, who grew up in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, was not diagnosed with Asperger’s until 2014, he recalls having a feeling that he was different from other children from an early age.
“I remember in primary school walking around in blue funks back in the playground, almost like there was a distance between me and other people, feeling that nobody cared about me, that nobody understood or appreciated me, everybody else was happy and enjoying themselves,” he says.
He found solace in books – adventure stories from Enid Blyton, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, science fiction books from his dad’s bookshelf and a “cherished set” of Victorian children’s encyclopedias.
Computers became another source of fascination.
“One of the things that attracted me to computers is that they are consistent and make sense. If it doesn’t do what you think it should do, you can eventually figure out why and it’s perfectly rational and reasonable,” he says.
Love would spend his evenings copying and sharing computer games for an early Atari computer with his younger sister during family holidays in Finland. By the time he was eight years old, he had learned how to rewrite the computer code.
He would spend hours writing games for an early handheld organiser; “a funky brick-like thing with a two-line LCD display”. In one game, that now seems prescient, the objective was to jump the border between Mexico and the US.
“There would be guards running from one line to the other and you had to dodge them – that was quite good fun,” says Love.
At primary school, Love was given one-on-one tuition because, he says, “there was nothing left to teach me on the curriculum”.
He learned about databases and how to write programs in Logo, a graphical language that allowed children to program turtles to move around a screen.
Love enjoyed drawing geometric patterns and, for a youngster who found holding a pen awkward, Logo was an amazing tool.
“I realised I needed an hour or two to draw all these lines with a pen and ruler, but with this computer program I could write it to do it all for me, so it was quite liberating,” he says.
When Love’s father was transferred to a different church in Lowestoft in the year 2000, Love experienced his first serious bout of depression – a pattern that started to repeat whenever there was a major change in his life.
The 15-year old disengaged from study and felt resentful towards his parents for moving. “That resulted in all my hair falling out because of the stress,” says Love, adding that he passed his exams more by luck than by study.
East Norfolk Sixth Form College gave Love the opportunity to focus on the subjects he enjoyed – maths, further maths, physics and computer science – and he had the opportunity to complete a practical qualification as a Cisco Certified Network Associate.
His social life took off as he discovered the fun of drinking with other students in the pub and playing pool.
It was Love’s skill at computers that brought him into conflict with the college’s head of computing.
Bored with the limitations of Microsoft Windows, one day Love decided to install Cygwin, a software tool that would allow him to write programs using the Unix operating system. When he came in the next day, Cygwin had disappeared.
“I had spent time downloading and building all these tools so I could do real computer science instead of the silly stuff they were trying to teach me. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just deal with this – next time somebody comes into my folder to delete my files that I’ve carefully amassed, they’ll have a little surprise’,” he says.
Love wrote a Java program that repeated the message, “Incompetence detected, please insert new administrator” if anyone tried to tamper with his files.
It may have been a harmless prank, but for the college’s head of computer studies, it seemed more like a denial of service attack.
“I was called into the office and kicked off the course,” says Love.
The college gave him an ultimatum – either attend every class until the end of the year, or be kicked out for good.
“Neither of which seemed particularly enthralling. I made a third option, that I would drop out and come back the next year and start afresh,” he says.
Love took a job in a turkey factory, slicing meat as it came by on a conveyor belt. For the 16-year-old student, earning £250 for a week’s work – more than he knew how to spend – was a formative experience. It helped him grow up, he says.
When he returned to college, Love applied himself with a new maturity and became a student governor and president of the students’ union.
Learning how to blow up tanks
Love had an understanding with his mother that he would complete his national service in Finland after his education. At the age of eight, the idea had seemed fun, but as the 20-year old made his way to Stansted Airport in July 2004, he began to have second thoughts.
“I got scared about it. I didn’t want to go. I was worried my Finnish wasn’t great because I hadn’t been there on holiday even for a few years. I didn’t like the idea particularly of shooting people with guns,” he says.
Love learned how to erect rickety iron-framed tents left over from the Second World War, how to dig up landmines on the Finnish-Russian border, and a variety of ways of blowing up tanks.
In his own words: video interview with Lauri Love
Watch our exclusive video interview with Lauri Love and hear him tell his story in his own words.
He found the experience depressing and he became increasingly anxious that he could no longer support a close friend in the UK who was struggling with anorexia and bulimia.
“I was very worried about her, and I didn’t feel that I could do what I thought was necessary to safeguard her health from Finland, so that started to weigh on me,” he says.
Three-and-a-half months into his six-month stint in the army, he returned to the UK.
Love, aged 21, enrolled in Nottingham University, to study computer science in 2005. But it was not a success. He suffered a bout of depression and glandular fever. He was unable to leave his room and “essentially became a hermit”, returning home after three months.
There he faced the stark choice of continuing his military service or facing two-and-a-half months in jail in Finland for being absent without leave. Instead, he found a third way – registering as a conscientious objector.
Lord of the fruit flies
The Finnish government allowed him to complete the rest of his service in a genetics laboratory. The job involved killing millions of “poor fruit flies” in the name of science.
“They had a good life. I made them food and they probably lived longer than they would in the wild because we were studying age-related diseases, so most of them lived to 100 days. And they had lots of sex. Then we’d knock them out with carbon dioxide, mash them up and look at their genes,” he says.
He got on well with his supervisor, a “lovely PhD student”, and when his voluntary term ended, the lab offered Love a paid job. He stayed for another six months before returning home to Scotland.
Love resumed his university career at Glasgow as a mature student in 2008, aged 27, reading physics and computer science. He took to “lecture hopping” to balance out his science-focused curriculum with arts courses.
“I used to go along to those when all the maths was getting a bit too much, and look at pretty pictures and pretty girls looking at pretty pictures, think about literature and go to the literature society and do poetry,” he says.
Love becomes interested in activism
It was at Glasgow that Love first developed his interest in activism. In his first year, he went on an anti-fascist march, and in 2011, Love found himself deeply involved in the student occupation of Glasgow University’s Heatherington Research Club.
The occupation, which lasted for seven months and led to what many thought was a heavy-handed police raid, was one of the longest-running student demonstrations of that period, attracting widespread media attention.
“Maybe because of the Asperger’s, I tend to dive into things fully and it was fantastic. It was like, here’s a free space and anyone can come along and do a talk or put on a film and we’ll cook food for free from donations, we’ll recover waste food and offer tea and coffee,” he says.
For Love, the protest made complete sense. He felt a sense of injustice that the university had closed a unique social club for post-graduates and lecturers, and that people were losing their jobs because of university cutbacks.
Later, Love became heavily involved in the Occupy Glasgow movement, taking up residence in a tent in the centre of Glasgow.
“It seemed important to get involved. I thought I could bring the experience from occupying at the university to make Occupy Glasgow more effective and successful,” he says.
He talks of the injustice of families being forced out of their homes in preparation for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in the city, Glasgow City Council’s closure of a day centre for people with learning difficulties to make way for a car park, and other injustices.
The protest ended badly for Love, who fell into another serious depression and had to be rescued by his parents.
“My mum and dad extracted me and took me home. I’ve not been back to Glasgow since. I can’t now, because I’m not allowed to leave the country, and the country – in legal terms – is England and Wales,” he says. Read More..