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Kid-Porn Vigilante Hacked Media Page 2
9:20 a.m.  8.Feb.99.PST

Newsday ran a story, reprinted in the Salt Lake Tribune and elsewhere, under the headline "Se7en's Sins Are Deadly For Child-Porn Dealers." It painted Valor as a cyber-warrior able to reduce a pedophile's hard drive to "a big hunk of Swiss," while displaying Se7en's alleged electronic calling card -- a python -- on the screen.

Another one of Se7en's "hacker weapons," Newsday's Matthew McAllester wrote, was a program that would search for and destroy all the JPEG files on a pedophile's machine.

I filed one of the first stories about Se7en's alleged crusade, "Hacker Vows 'Terror' for Child Pornographers," published in Wired News in 1997.

I quoted Valor as saying he had been initially skeptical about all the media hype about porn on the Net, but was convinced to jump into the breach after seeing images of "4-year-olds being raped, 6-year-olds forced to have oral sex with cum running down themselves."

Toward the end of our interview, Valor told me he had been abused as a child himself.

Valor subsequently appeared on MSNBC, brandishing photographs that he said were images of children downloaded from the Net.

Even a news site for Star Wars gaming fans got into the act, hailing Se7en as "a modern-day Superman."

Discovery Channel Canada Online interviewed him in RealAudio and paid tribute to the way Valor "dish(es) out justice." The accompanying article cited Valor's assertion that Usenet newsgroups dedicated to child porn garner over 7,000 new images daily, a figure repeated in article after article.

A program on the Microsoft Research site that monitors newsgroup posting patterns called Netscan indicates that number was inflated ten or twentyfold.

Super-villainy calls for superheroes, and one of the superpowers that Se7en allegedly used against pedophiles was his immunity from laws against computer intrusions.

On a Microsoft-sponsored CyberStation Internet radio program, Valor held forth for an hour claiming that police, judges, and federal officials wouldn't touch him, because they loathed his victims more than they cared about his destruction of personal property.

"You find me a jury anywhere in the world that is going to convict me for invading a child pornographer's computer and destroying it," he bragged to Newsday's McAllester. "Or in the unlikely event they find me guilty... you just made a national martyr. The whole country is going to go nuts."

Forbes' Penenberg is widely respected as an astute reporter with particular expertise in covering the hacker beat. In May, it was Penenberg who first sniffed out inconsistencies in a New Republic feature about hackers by Stephen Glass, who was subsequently found to have fabricated sources for stories in other national magazines.

Penenberg didn't rely only on Valor's own statements to write his profile. He interviewed a number of sources in law enforcement and the hacker underground -- both on and off the record. Among them was the head of the US Customs Cybersmuggling division, Gene Weinschenk, and a group that calls itself the Ethical Hackers Against Pedophilia (EHAP), dedicated to using legal means to snare child pornographers online.

"If Christian Valor fooled law enforcement and fooled EHAP, then it's possible that he fooled me," Penenberg said when contacted for this article.

Weinschenk now points out that he never actually saw Valor hack sites, that he had only heard about his campaign.

A spokesman for EHAP, who uses the pseudonym "Neville Farmer," acknowledged, "as far as seeing physical evidence, or knowing someone who'd seen something, we didn't. Normally in the underground, [first-hand reports] would have trickled down. They didn't."

The story in Newsday quoted only Valor himself, but reporter McAllester said he remembered talking with someone in the New York State attorney general's office about it. Senior members of the attorney general's Internet crime team in Buffalo say they've never heard of Valor.

Info-war specialist Winn Schwartau, who hosted the Internet radio show featuring Valor, also said he can't personally confirm any of his hacks.

Part of the problem in accurately researching stories about hackers, Penenberg suggested, is that it's hard to know whom to trust.

"Every time I write about hackers, whether it's Yobie Benjamin, Christian Valor, milw0rm, or Kevin Mitnick," he said, "I get email from anonymous hackers in cyberspace saying that these guys don't know anything. Who do you believe?"

Journalist Richard Thieme, who published two interviews with Valor on his Web site and wrote about his alleged immunity in Salon, also never witnessed Se7en in action.

He stays away from Valor these days, calling him "a social engineer, mostly mouth."

Thieme made the observation that, by making those who trade in illegal pornography his targets and his cause célèbre, Valor's credibility had built-in insurance. Valor claimed that no one would report his attacks to the authorities, because to do so would be to implicate oneself as a pedophile.

An added benefit to Valor was that his modus operandi made it very difficult to confirm or deny his activities.

"If Se7en claimed he was hacking the Mafia," Thieme speculated, "he might get shot."

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