Beto’s secret life as a teenage hacker

Reuters has learned that when he was growing up in El Paso, Texas, the kid who would grow up to be Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke was a member of one of the earliest – and most influential – hacker collectives.
When Beto O’Rourke ran for Senate in Texas, millions of voters connected with his message, and his story: The boy from El Paso who formed a punk band, ran a business, served on the local city council and then in U.S. Congress.


“Thank you all for being here with us, being with us every single step of the way.”

Now he’s running for president.

But his supporters don’t know his full story: almost no one does.

Reuters has learned that when he was a teenager, Beto O’Rourke was a hacker.

Not just that: he was a member of one of the most influential hacker collectives of all time, a group that calls itself ‘The Cult of Dead Cow.’


“Beto O’Rourke joined in the very early years, when it was a network of friends, really, who had their own bulletin boards. Their own online hangouts, devoted to their interests, and their friends, and strangers who stumbled onto their writing. In Beto O’Rourke’s case, it was a board called taco land. And it was largely about music. Largely about punk music.”

Reuters correspondent Joseph Menn covers cybersecurity.

He uncovered O’Rourke’s secret past while researching a forthcoming book on the the Cult of the Dead Cow.

While the term ‘hacker’ today carries sinister connotations of cyber-attacks and espionage, there is nothing to suggest O’Rourke ever broke into computers or stole data.

But in an interview with the author, O’Rourke admitted some of his teenage exploits were illegal.


“My interview with Beto O’Rourke, he conceded that he broke the law, when he was a teenager. He stole long distance service. At the time, in the 1980s, this was commonplace for teenagers who wanted to connect to online bulletin boards. They were sort of like the underground newspapers of the day. This was before the World Wide Web. If you wanted to connect to a bulletin board, which was what most of the discussion sites were called, unless it was in your area code, it was a very expensive phone call. It was hundreds of dollars worth of phone bills for you parents. And Beto O’Rourke, like pretty much every hacker his age, admitted to stealing long distance service as a teenager.”

The statue of limitations has long run out on any such crimes.

As a group, the Cult of the Dead Cow gained worldwide attention for releasing hacking tools that let users take control of Windows software, forcing Microsoft to confront security problems with its programs.


“I’ve released several security advisories on various pieces of commercial software, which have prompted vendor patches, which means they improved the software after we pointed it out to them. Unfortunately, many times they would not improve the software until we actually went public with the findings. Companies do, indeed, want to ignore problems as long as possible. It’s cheaper for them.”

Later on, members would coin the term ‘hack-tivism,’ focused on helping people living under repressive regimes circumvent government censorship.

But for many, including O’Rourke, the group was a place to socialize online, share code, opinions, and creative writing. And O’Rourke did all this under a pseudonym.


“The pseudonym was Psychedelic Warlord. And this writing is still online, as we speak. It was a very interesting range. Some of the pieces were political. There’s another piece in which an idealistic young Beto O’Rourke mused about what the world would be like without money. Would the government wither away? Would it fall? And then there was one that was a murderous fantasy. He was 15 years old, and the narrator in this first-person story wrote about running over children because they were too happy. Fifteen-year-old boys have violent thoughts. Most don’t express them in writing, I understand why they would do so anonymously.


“We’re showing up. And we’re listening to people.”

In an interview for the book, Beto O’Rourke explained that the hacker mindset could be very helpful to society.

He said hackers examine the world as it really is, not as it is supposed to work.

O’Rourke said hackers look for flaws in systems, whether that is software, the media, or government, with a view to making them better

Associated Links

  • Beto
  • ThomsonReuters
  • Microsoft
  • Beto O'Rourke
  • Bilingualism
  • Texas
  • El Paso, Texas
  • Brian O'Rourke
  • States of the United States
  • Foss

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