'Topiary' tells all: Prison, activism, and LulzSec's beginnings

The young hacker, who's real name is Jake Davis, opens up about his time in the cyberattack collective.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
3 min read
The LulzSec logo. The top hat and monocle image was chosen at random, according to former member Jake Davis. LulzSec
LulzSec, a group of pranky hackers that ran amok starting in 2011, disbanded shortly after a high-profile cyberattack spree -- but in a world where such attacks are only becoming more common, the inside perspective is an intriguing one.

Jake Davis, a member who goes by "Topiary," took to the site ask.fm to answer questions about the group's formation and his work as LulzSec's social media wiz. Davis was arrested by the British authorities and sentenced to two years in prison, though he was let out early.

The group caused a lot of trouble at the peak of its run, claiming credit for a number of high-profile attacks, including targets like Sony Pictures and the CIA.

The entire Q&A is worth a read, but here are a few choice excerpts:

On the differences between LulzSec and WikiLeak:

WikiLeaks is about sparking a debate to bring accountability to those that would use censorship and covert operations to bring fruition to their own corrupt agendas, such as murdering children with drones or smashing journalists' servers with hammers. LulzSec was merely a childish parody of corporate advertising intended to mock how we all consume and accept social media; on the Venn Diagram of activities/interests shared by WikiLeaks and LulzSec, the two groups were highly separate in almost every way.

Davis also spoke about the group's formation on IRC, a hub for the underground security world:

We invented LulzSec during a very bored conversation on some abandoned IRC server. It was "Lulz Leaks" but then I forgot all of the passwords and we had to change the name. The top hat and monocle image was chosen at random from one of my Reaction Face folders with several thousand other, unrelated pictures. From there it was a case of making it up as we went along. I wouldn't even call it a conspiracy because that implies some level of organization. It's fantastic that companies are securing themselves and that we're taking Internet privacy seriously at a mainstream level now, even though LulzSec was fundamentally a waste of time.

And that's not the only thing that's a waste of time, according to Davis. He's also very glib about his time in prison. "It's basically just taking able human beings and wasting their time. I tried my best to help people read/write and understand their court cases for the 37 days, and if I had to serve 2 years I would have gotten involved with the prison radio service and laid out some harsh, tasty beats throughout the airwaves."

Davis is also cavalier about the legacy of the LulzSec "brand" (which he puts in scare quotes). Asked about poseurs who claimed to be in the group, he is dismissive: "The short answer is I don't care even a little what other people do through the Internet, and I feel no ownership over the LulzSec 'brand' because, frankly, it got me banned from the Internet and sent to prison."

And though he's been vocal about digital activism since LulzSec had entered the spotlight, Davis doesn't see himself becoming a voice or central figure for any major movement. "Unfortunately I'm not confident or knowledgeable enough to become a voice for anything as important as digital activism. It's flattering that so many people seem to think I know what I'm talking about, but it's really, really easy to sound informative and inspiring through the Internet. I enjoy facilitating an exciting and alternative reality for an audience more than encouraging them politically."