Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Why Did Police Kill an Alleged Small-Time Hacker?

Sam Maloney looks like he could be 21. In photos posted to Facebook, he’s smiling, and so are the first-year university students surrounding him. His boyish face doesn’t seem at all out of place during the 2015 frosh week celebrations captured in these images, and he looks happy and excited. Everyone does.

But Sam Maloney wasn’t 21, despite what he reportedly told his fellow students while living in university residence and enrolled in a first-year computer science course at Western University in London, Ontario, a two-hour drive from Toronto.

In reality, Sam Maloney was a 35-year-old freelance developer and an adept self-taught programmer of encrypted and distributed computer systems. Though he maintained a room in residence, Maloney had a common-law wife, Melissa Facciolo, and a son. The family owned a house about a 15-minute drive from the school.

Read More: Student Hacker Faces 10 Years in Prison For Spyware That Hit 16,000 Computers

On December 23, 2016, Maloney, no longer enrolled in university, was shot dead by police in his home after he allegedly fired a crossbow bolt at officers during an early morning raid.

According to Facciolo’s lawyer, Phil Millar, the police had a warrant to seize Maloney’s computer. The police suspected Maloney of hacking a local cinema’s website. The person responsible posted a manifesto called “The Declaration of the Independence of Atlantis” that reportedly railed against race mixing. Days before the hack, Maloney posted a rambling screed with a similar title to his Facebook page. According to Millar, the cinema was a client of Maloney’s at the time.

Maloney’s wife and two sons, ages two and six months, were present when he was killed, according to Millar. When he was shot, he was on the phone with his lawyer, Nick Cake.

It was the first shooting death involving police in London in 17 years.

Maloney’s shooting is being investigated by the province’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU), which investigates all police-involved shootings, and the London police force is directing all questions to them. Both the London police and the SIU declined to comment on any of the details of the incident reported in this story due to the ongoing investigation.

More information about the case will come to light. The Crown is now pursuing a weapons charge against Facciolo for breaching a 10-year weapons ban imposed in 2007—due to the crossbow—after she plead guilty to improperly storing thousands of rounds of ammunition in the family home, meaning that the Crown will have to disclose information about Maloney’s killing in court.

The question on everybody’s mind now is: Who was Sam Maloney?

The London, Ontario courthouse where I met Phillip Millar, lawyer for Maloney's common-law wife, Melissa Facciolo. Image: Author

The best entry point for understanding Maloney is the cause to which he dedicated his life: his software. Looking at his life through this lens provides insight not only into his innate talents, but also suggests a troubled mind.

MORPHiS, a peer-to-peer system for sharing and encrypting files, was Maloney’s main project. It was open-source, meaning that anybody could contribute to the code, but the online code repository shows that Maloney was the main contributor. The software had a small but devoted community of users, 135 of whom populated a dedicated subforum on Reddit.

The online encryption community took note of his sudden passing in a popular post on the bitcoin subforum of Reddit, and a short obituary in a bitcoin trade blog.

“MORPHiS worked flawlessly as a distributed datastore (meaning you could store files in MORPHiS' database and other users would be able to retrieve the files at their end, provided they knew the file's ‘address’) and you could send encrypted messages to other users of MORPHiS,” Klaus Seistrup, a 56-year-old nurse living in Denmark who contributed to the code, wrote me in an email.

Maloney also created an encrypted email service called Dmail, and a “spam-resistant” encrypted messaging protocol called Dpush. All of this before he ever enrolled at Western University, and without any formal academic training.

“I am doing this all for free for all humanity because I hate evil"

“He clearly understood the technology behind censorship-resistant software, knew what the weaknesses of the current approaches were, and did his best to come up with a new approach that addressed these issues,” Emin Gün Sirer, a Cornell University computer science professor who read the Dpush white paper, wrote me in an email.

According to Maloney’s father, Peter, a former satellite technician for Environment Canada, his son displayed an uncanny talent for programming at an early age.

“I knew that he was really talented when he was around nine or 10 years old,” the elder Maloney said over the phone from his home in St. Thomas, Ontario. “I came home from work one day, and he had the Commodore 64, and he wanted to make sprites move around on the screen. I told him he had to learn hexadecimal and binary math, and he said, OK, show me. He didn’t even know decimal math.”

It wasn’t long before the younger Maloney had outstripped his father’s coding abilities.

“One day I came home and he had sprites going all over the place,” Maloney’s father said. “In other words, he learned so quickly that he could convert binary numbers to hexadecimal numbers practically in his head, and he was 10 or 11 at that time.”

MORPHiS and Maloney’s other projects suggest a paranoid mentality and an anti-authority bent. It appears the project and his online persona were a way to exorcise some of his demons and darker ideas.

“I am doing this all for free for all humanity because I hate evil,” Maloney wrote on MORPHiS’ homepage. According to Maloney’s writings, MORPHiS would be the foundational layer for a so-called “world brain”—an idea coined by science fiction author H.G. Wells in the 1930s—that would ultimately usher in a “unified human consciousness.” It was a mission to him, his “calling.”

Under the online handle “MorphisCreator,” Maloney updated his followers on the software’s progress, but he also created a subreddit called “The Nation of Atlantis.” Posts on the page rail against “globalists”—a popular term among conspiracy theorists—and “forced integration,” calling for the creation of a digital democracy dedicated to preserving racial bloodlines. The foundational technology of this race-based society, he wrote, would be MORPHiS.

“His technical writings reveal a world-view of someone with a deep distrust of anyone and anything in a position of power,” Sirer wrote me. “His entire system was structured to decentralize access to data, to make sure that there could be no guardian and no censor.”

Although the goal of designing privacy-boosting technology is laudable, and in that sense “we need people like him,” Sirer continued, “an adversarial mindset can merge into belligerence, healthy skepticism can blur into paranoia, especially when coupled with other, divisive narratives, such as racism or a victim mentality.”

A photo of Maloney, displaying injuries he allegedly received during a police arrest at a temple. Image: MORPHiS blog.

This mindset bled into Maloney’s offline life.

Rehan Basson is a 29-year-old graphic designer living in Moncton, New Brunswick. In 2015, during Maloney’s year-long stint in university, Basson was president of the Libertarian Party of Canada. (The far-right criticized him for focusing on LGBTQ issues.) The two were friends and talked often.

Basson met Maloney in 2014 at a protest in London, Ontario against Bill C-51, a massively controversial surveillance law. Basson was a student at Western University at the time, but Maloney hadn’t enrolled yet.

According to Basson, when I spoke with him over the phone, the pair bonded over their mutual belief that government isn’t working. Privacy laws were of particular interest to both. Basson said that the pair maintained significant disagreements, especially regarding Maloney’s racist beliefs and anti-immigration stances. In fact, these beliefs “seem to have motivated [Maloney] a lot,” Basson said.

“I could tell it was something that was integral to him, but he had a functional way of dealing with it, which was putting time into open source software,” Basson said.

Basson and Maloney concocted a plan to use the technology behind MORPHiS—distributed hash tables—to build a program to increase government transparency, not unlike the many proposed applications of the bitcoin blockchain for government. They were after nothing short of a revolution. It’s not surprising that such a proposal jibed with Maloney, who was on his own mission to fight a perceived evil.

“He was a hacker, but he tried to live some of that [by] challenging the bylaws"

The pair spoke often to discuss the project, right up until two months before Maloney’s death. He was so privacy-conscious that he would often take unusual precautions, like talking at a distance from any nearby cell phones out of fear of potential eavesdroppers, Basson said.

“Whenever MORPHiS came up, we’d end up talking about those larger ideas,” Basson said. “There was always some bigger topic associated with it, keeping a grander perspective in mind.”

His wife Melissa Facciolo’s lawyer, Phil Millar, suggested that Maloney sought to act out his ideals on a level achievable to him as a self-trained computer programmer living in a small Canadian city. “He was a hacker, but he tried to live some of that [by] challenging the bylaws,” he said.

While Maloney does not have any criminal record after 2005, according to Millar, several incidents in the recent past point to a petty sort of anti-authoritarianism.

This past summer, Maloney grew his lawn to a height that neighbour Mike Irling described as being “a couple feet tall.” Neighbours complained, according to news reports, and the city came and cut it. “They just came in with a lawnmower,” Irling said.

The MORPHiS blog paints this incident in a dark light. The city employees are described as “thugs,” the grass cutting as a “crime,” and the city’s behaviour generally as threatening and harassing. The blog also notes, innocuously, that Maloney “went out and told them they were trespassing and to leave.”

Neighbour Elias Balch, who was not present from the incident but heard the story from his parents, tells it a bit differently.

“The city came to cut the grass, and then Sam hopped out with a pipe in his hand and started threatening to swing at the city workers so they took off,” Balch said in an interview.

Also in the summer of 2016, Maloney was arrested after he visited a temple (media reports say it was Buddhist, while the MORPHiS blog says Hindu), and refused to leave. The MORPHiS blog maintains he was simply there to learn about the religion. Maloney initially faced charges related to obstructing and assaulting police, but the charges against him were dropped. According to the MORPHiS blog, Maloney sustained several visible injuries during the arrest, which he photographed and documented on the site.

It appeared as though his behaviour was escalating.

In December of 2016, the website of a local independent cinema was defaced with an incoherent, radical, reportedly racist message. While police have not established that it was Maloney who hacked the site, a manifesto with a similar title and message appeared on Maloney’s personal Facebook page just days before.

On this behaviour, Millar describes Maloney as someone with “glorious dreams,” but whose real station in life made him “a small potato.”

One interpretation of Maloney’s recent activities could be that while he was building a new world online, in real life these visions translated into trifling, troublesome behaviour.

The Ontario Hall residence at Western University where Maloney lived. Image: Author

The most puzzling aspect of Maloney’s story, and the detail that has led to the belief that he was living a “double life,” is the time he spent in a first-year university program, allegedly telling his classmates that he was 21.

Sam’s family—including his father and his wife—knew he was in university, and that he had a room in residence. Explanations for why Maloney went to university and lived in residence in the first place, given that he and his wife had a home nearby, varied depending on who I spoke to. Maloney’s father believes that he went to school in order to find a better job.

“He knew his stuff inside out, but he discovered that most jobs wanted a degree,” Peter Maloney said. “That’s the major reason, I think—for the software side of it. He wanted to improve his mathematics, so he took math, but his other things were philosophy and religion, that kind of thing.”

As for why Maloney went into residence, his father said that it was because he needed a quiet place to work. “He’s very serious about his studies and with a new baby at home, he couldn’t work with a baby crying,” he said.

But none of this squares with the version of Maloney’s life reported in the press: telling his his classmates that he was 21, and attending dorm parties. An alternative explanation might be simply that he was deeply unhappy, and that he needed some sort of escape.

“He definitely seemed like he might have been depressed, and I thought he was looking at ways to get out of it"

“He definitely seemed like he might have been depressed,” said Basson, Maloney’s friend and collaborator. “And I thought he was looking at ways to get out of it.”

His writings on the MORPHiS website paint the picture of a man who turned to software not just to build what he perceived to be a better world, but to assuage a deeper unease.

“Later in life I realized I was very unhappy,” Maloney wrote on the site, “both due to the state of the world and the boredom of being just a business programmer in the enterprise world, even in architect roles.”

Shortly after they first met in 2014, Maloney approached Basson, who was a student at the university then, for advice. According to Basson, Maloney broached the topic of getting a degree for the purpose of getting a job, but what he was really after was a romanticized ideal of university life.

“He thought that he’d be able to immerse himself in a world where people were maybe a bit more curious than it turned out to be,” Basson said.

Everyone I spoke to about Maloney’s reported presentation of himself as being 21 said they only learned about it in the news, after his death. Little is publicly known about what he got up to in school, but the photos on social media suggest that he was enjoying himself for a while.

I reached out to more than a dozen students that the normally social media-averse Maloney was friends with on Facebook, and none agreed to be formally interviewed. But one student who lived in Maloney’s residence, and who declined a follow-up interview, said in a Facebook message that Maloney “was a very intelligent guy” and went on: “He showed me these incredibly complicated and advanced papers and books on [distributed hash table] networking and the math proving how much more efficient it would be.”

According to Western University spokesperson Keith Marnoch, there were no complaints lodged against Maloney during his time in residence. The university was aware of Maloney’s real age, and “does not discriminate on the basis of age when making residence offers,” Marnoch said in an email.

Maloney’s father told me that he was withdrawn even from his family, including his young children. But something about the time spent in university seems to have drawn them together.

“In the last couple of months [before he died], Samuel was getting close with the kids,” Peter Maloney said. “I was talking to him, and I said, you hardly hold your kid. And before you know it, a few days after that, he was holding his child.”

The Maloney family home. Image: Author

Maloney’s neighbour, Elias Balch, said he was awoken by a loud noise and flashing police lights in the early morning on December 23, 2016, the day that Maloney was shot to death.

“There was lots of police [at the house],” Balch said. “I saw a SWAT team going around. I’m not sure what woke me up. It could have been kicking down the door, or it could have been the shots.”

According to Maloney’s wife’s lawyer, Millar, the police were there to seize his computer in relation to the hacking incident at the local theatre.

The Maloney home is a small red brick affair, massively dwarfed by large houses on either side. The walk-up to the front door is flanked by big, healthy hedges, and when I visited, a thick sheet of snow on the walkway was undisturbed by footprints.

The white front door had two large dents, presumably from the police’s forced entry, and a loosely hanging sign that instructed visitors to use the back door.

It’s unclear what actually happened in that house when Sam was shot, and police have not publicly commented on the incident. But a timeline quilted together from media reports and from his wife Melissa Facciolo’s account, relayed through her lawyer and Maloney’s father, paints a disturbing picture.

“They could have tasered him, and with all those police in there, they could have tackled him"

According to Millar, Maloney and Facciolo were looking at house designs online while the children were asleep, since it was roughly six in the morning. Unexpectedly, police forcibly entered the home.

At some point, Maloney allegedly fired a crossbow bolt at the officers, injuring one. Then, with police still there, he got on the phone with his lawyer. Nick Cake instructed Maloney to put up his hands and cooperate, which Maloney acknowledged. The scene sounded chaotic, according to Cake, but Maloney sounded calm. And then, according to Cake, who remained on the phone, four shots rang out.

According to Maloney’s father, Facciolo alleges that Maloney had nothing in his hands and was shirtless when he was shot. He said that Facciolo had told him that Maloney was first shot in the chest and then crumpled to the ground in a sitting position. It was then that police allegedly shot him in the face. According to Facciolo’s lawyer, Maloney was shot in the chest, and then shot in the face while he was on his knees.

“They could have tasered him, and with all those police in there, they could have tackled him,” said Peter Maloney. “Why would they shoot him in the face when he was already on the floor. Does that make any sense?”

Phil Millar, Facciolo’s lawyer, maintains that the entire situation could have been avoided if the police had taken a less aggressive approach to seizing Maloney’s computer.

“To be frank, you could have a car parked outside the house and picked him up as he left the house and then said, ‘We need the keys, we have a warrant to seize your computer,’” Millar said.

“If you know this guy is standing up to authority, and you just need to seize a computer, it goes into… Why poke a bear? Not that he was a bear.”

London, Ontario. Image: Author

Sam Maloney is dead. His motivations will always be shrouded in uncertainty, and the future of MORPHiS is murky, if not quashed.

But the exact circumstances surrounding his shooting death at the hands of police stand a much greater chance of being exposed.

Because the SIU is involved, disclosure on the details of the raid and the shooting will be slow to come. But since the Crown is pursuing a weapons charge against Facciolo, based on the crossbow in the house, they will, at some point, have to disclose documents describing the events leading up to Maloney’s death.

In particular, Millar said he hopes to gain insight into the decision to seize Maloney’s computer with a pre-dawn raid. “Regardless of the actions of Mr. Maloney, the decision to raid a house with a six-month-old child and a two-year-old child in that manner is overly militaristic,” he said.

Until then, the people caught up in Maloney’s life, the city that has experienced its first police shooting in a generation, and the online community that watched his work with great interest, are reckoning with what they thought they knew about the man.

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from Why Did Police Kill an Alleged Small-Time Hacker?

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