The on- and offline search for the prime suspect in last month’s celebrity nude-photo hacking scandal.
By his own account, Bryan Hamade was asleep when he became the internet’s primary suspect in the last month’s celebrity nude-photo hacking scandal.
At the time Bryan, 27, was living in his mother’s basement and resting after a particularly busy day online, while anonymous Reddit and 4chan users were hard at work reverse engineering his identity with a brand of vigilante online detective work that’s now become a hallmark of internet conspiracy theories. Their investigation didn’t take long and, in a matter of hours, Hamade’s Reddit username, BluntMastermind, was successfully traced to his real identity. That’s when the calls started.
According to archived chat transcripts, Bryan awoke sometime in the middle of the night to calls from 4chan users who’d found his name and number online, along with most of his social media accounts. After scrubbing a few accounts like his Twitter page, Bryan entered a 4chan IRC chatroom around 4:15 a.m. and, according to the archived chat logs, spent an hour in the room berating himself and refuting claims he was the man who leaked the first illegally obtained thumbnails and nude phone pictures of actress Jennifer Lawrence:
[04:19] <+bh> I will send you the same thing I sent the others. The truth. I lied on the internet to try and scam bitcoins out of people wanting naked pictures. I am a fucktard and a fag. I never had anything at all except what was already posted on another imageboard, and I reposted it. No one even sent me BTC anyways, so it was all for naught. Please leave us alone. I apologize and won’t ever go on 4chan again because you guys are definitely far
[04:19] <+bh> superior to my stupidity. The real dude is here apparently:http://www.reddit.com/r/TheFappening/comments/2f5oq1/email_leak/
[04:19] <+bh> I haven’t even been on my PC for the last 8 hours because I was sleeping until you guys woke me with your calls. The fact that there’s more shit being posted proves it’s not me and I don’t have shit. I am not the hacker nor is my little brother. We are not based. We are not cool. We are not interesting. I only wanted the BTC to trade in for cash to give my mom money I owe her because I currently live in her basement. I am just a
[04:19] <+bh> loser, and no one of note, period. I apologize for my indiscretions. Please let everyone else know I am just a fag and to please let us be. Our lives are shitty enough as is.
But it was too late. In a few hours, Bryan’s name would be plastered across the internet linking him, justly or not, to the biggest leak of hacked celebrity nude photos in recent memory. And now, according to two sources, Bryan is being investigated by the FBI, though the agency would not confirm an investigation.
Yet, “hacking scandal” feels like a bit of a misnomer. The modern version of a computer hack isn’t really a “hack” at all. There are no cascading green screens of numbers; no sophisticated mainframes; no secret coding languages. Instead, the modern hack is little more than a scam executed under the cover of the internet: a series of small lies, an impersonation, a fake Gmail account, access to public information on a person’s Facebook page, some simple web design, and, in the most aggressive cases, a reasonably priced piece of Russian software.
The same can be said of the “hacker.” Far from the film stereotypes, the individuals behind most “hacks” aren’t technically skilled cyberpunk programmers — they are confidence men and creeps. More web savvy than technical geniuses, modern internet criminals often lead mundane lives in the physical world, at least compared with their lives online. While occasionally fueled by a particular brand of hate or misogyny or a rogue political cause, even their motives are often dull, born frequently out of boredom.
The man who destroyed Wired writer Mat Honan’s digital life in 2012 by hacking and wiping his iCloud and social accounts had little in the way of motive. “I honestly didn’t have any heat towards you before this. i just liked your username like I said before,” he told Honan, adding, “yea i really am a nice guy idk why i do some of the things i do.” The man serving a 10-year sentence for obtaining and distributing nude photos of Scarlett Johansson and dozens of other celebrities, Christopher Chaney, also blamed idle time. According to his half brother in a 2012 profile, “he was bored.” Chaney’s half sister also agreed that the act was not malicious. “I don’t think he was trying to be a creep or a perv … he was just curious,” she told GQ.
Just as quickly as they inflict damage on their victims, these hackers can also disappear into the folds of the internet, leaving the truth guarded by deleted web pages and social media accounts, burner email addresses, anonymous identities, and the volatile personalities of internet trolls. Despite causing global, high-profile news, with numerous and very real victims, there often seems to be few answers.
Bryan Hamade took just one day to erase his footprint online and off. Twenty-four hours after his alleged leak blew up the internet, he had all but vanished. In his hometown of Lawrenceville, Georgia, local news trucks staked out his family’s front lawn, but Bryan wasn’t there.
Some of the first evidence against Bryan appears to have come from an anonymous 4chan poster just after midnight on Sept. 1. “I’m pretty sure I figured out the identity of the leaker, or at least ONE of them,” the poster said. The anonymous user followed Bryan’s Reddit username, BluntMastermind, which, just hours earlier, had taken to Reddit to brag about and defend being the first to post evidence that he had a cache of nude photos of actress Jennifer Lawrence.
“The leaker was posting censored screenshots on 4chan of his desktop folder with the thumbnails,” the 4chan poster said. “In this one he forgot to block out the labels on his homegroup and his network. His homegroup: Tristan. Other computers on his network: BARTANDJENNA and BH. So after a bit of Google searching, I found this site for southern digital media. And check out the names of the team: Jenna, Bart, Bryan Hamade (BH) and Tristan, the 15 year old intern.”
It took just minutes for yet another anonymous user to put the pieces together on the plain-text archive site Pastebin, where an interested party was able to successfully link Bryan to the Reddit username through Bryan’s account on the video game site Steam, in which BluntMastermind lists his name as “Bryan Hamade” in his bio.
Early the next morning, a hastily photoshopped image started circulating on the photo-sharing site Imgur that laid out the case against Bryan: the exposed network drives and the link between BluntMastermind and his real identity, along with a picture of the accused.
Shortly after seeing the image, I spoke with Bryan via email and then on the phone for what would be the first and last time. “Please leave me be. I am a nonstory. I would never in a million years try to hack into anything,” he’d written.
On the phone Bryan seemed calm. In between bouts of nervous laughter he claimed the “witch hunt” was all a misunderstanding. “I am not behind this. It was so stupid — I saw a lot of people posting the actual leaks and bitcoin addresses and I’ve read a lot about bitcoin and how they are valuable and I thought, Oh cool, I’ll get free bitcoins,” he assured me.
Bryan sounded concerned only at the mention of hiring an attorney. “I’m driving around the area where there are a lot of lawyers offices hoping one will be open so I can go in and talk to one to get ahead of this thing,” he said. “I don’t want to wait until they knock on my door or kick it down if they think I’m a guilty party. I’m not the only dude who reposted photos, and I only reposted one or two folder photos [by which he means computer desktop screenshots of file folders containing censored pictures of nude celebrities like Lawrence].” At the end of the call, Bryan defended his innocence one final time. “I know my name will be cleared when they find the IP address. It just sucks that my name is out there right now.”
And Bryan had reason for concern. Past arrested celebrity hackers have been swiftly brought to justice and, according to one former federal prosecutor, the individual responsible for the Aug. 31 leaks could be subject to a 20-year sentence, given that Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney has publicly stated she was underage in some of the nude photographs.
As is the case with most ventures into the murky, pseudo-anonymous worlds of internet communities like 4chan, Reddit, and AnonIB, irrefutable facts are remarkably hard to come by. In the hours after the above interview with Bryan, dozens of tips from anonymous email accounts and security researchers poured into my inbox, many with screenshots that were equal parts compelling and conspiratorial. Some claimed Bryan Hamade had lied to me — that he’d received bitcoin for ransoming the photos.
“He is downplaying his knowledge. He can’t claim to not know how to guess a password and also be a systems administrator and a developer,” one tipster noted. “He also won’t be able explain how the screenshot he posted contains 85 items of mckayla manoney (sp?)[sic] pictures and videos which leaked nowhere else. He says he got them from ‘somewhere else’, but there is no somewhere else – that somewhere else is either he stole them or obtained them privately from the person who did.”
Theories aside, the story dried up quickly. It was Bryan’s word against the internet’s. Even more remarkable, however, were how few details of his life emerged in the hours after the online manhunt.
Of his neighbors, past and present, only one would speak about Bryan. Ann Britz, a 59-year-old woman who’d lived near the Hamade family at their previous residence, said her son and Bryan had been friends (her son declined to comment for the story except to say that Bryan was maintaining his innocence) but that she didn’t know him well. “My general impression is that he’s very, very intelligent. He built a PC for my husband and helped my son build computers. He was kind of a loner, though. He had friends, but they never really got to know him. There was no depth to the friendships, it seems like,” she said, noting that the family was quiet but they were good neighbors.
Outside of attending high school and the University of Georgia, Bryan barely seemed to exist outside the internet. A cousin, Jad Zeidan, spoke highly of Bryan, though, describing him as “very social and really interested in comedy,” even he couldn’t provide key details of Bryan’s life. “I’m not sure exactly what his job is. I heard he was building a website for his mom to help her out,” he said.
Others offered a bleaker depiction of Bryan’s life. One source close to the family who wished not to be identified said, “He’s always lived in his mom’s basement in Lawrenceville since he graduated and not to sound mean, but he really had no friends at all. He literally was a dude who sat in the basement and played world of war craft [sic] and shit like that. His friends were all online and I really have no clue who any of them are or were.”
But perhaps the most conflicted portrait of Bryan Hamade came from his brother, Andrew, who, over five days of on-and-off calls and texts, wavered between defending and incriminating Bryan — more than once, hinting that he knew more about his brother’s involvement in the photo leaks than he could say.
At 2:15 a.m. on Sept. 8, Andrew woke me in the middle of the night with an unsolicited text:
“He still hasn’t made a statement, correct??? Okay, if he doesn’t tomorrow then I have some stuff to tell you that will blow your mind. I’m starting to get annoyed with him he’s leaving his whole family in the wake of his bs and not doing anything to fix it at this point so I’m going to fix it of [sic] he doesn’t by tomorrow.”
“I didn’t want to [reach out] because my family was mad I said anything the first time we spoke but now they have all practically screwed me over 100% and I don’t even like my brother he’s been terrible to me all my life yet he and my dad got angry with him for talking to you and defending him. So at this point I’m over it all but I also have something,” he urged.
At Andrew’s insistence, I traveled to Lawrenceville to meet in person. Once in Atlanta, Andrew had a change of heart, wanting instead to meet a day later. “The FBI is involved now so I’m a bit apprehensive to talk to anybody,” he texted, also saying that his family finally wanted to bring him back into their circle.
Andrew finally agreed to meet nine hours later at the Bonefish Grill outside the Mall of Georgia. I walked in as the servers and busboys were clearing and wiping down their final tables. When he first arrived, the man claiming to be Andrew approached quickly and shook my hand. He bore little resemblance to the photo I saw online, and his voice didn’t match the one I’d heard a week earlier on the phone. He avoided eye contact, opting instead to look at his phone. After an awkward introduction and assurance that I wasn’t recording anything, he swiveled his bar stool toward me. “I have a confession to make. I’m not Andrew,” he said, pointing to the door of the restaurant. “That’s Andrew.”
His friend gestured and Andrew walked in and sat down next to me. Tall and fit, he had a cast on one of his hands. He politely ordered a beer and told me he was sorry for all the confusion. “I wanted to be careful. It’s been a wild week, man,” he said with a sheepish smile.
During the meeting, Andrew refused to disclose the information that would “blow my mind.” Andrew said that the FBI’s new involvement with Bryan had him and the family worried. Andrew waited a considerable amount of time weighing each of my questions about Bryan before offering a response and often apologetically offered a “no comment.” His silence wasn’t without a noticeable frustration, though, which bubbled to the surface more than once. Throughout the 45 minutes, Andrew took pains to assure me he knew “plenty of shit.” He explained that he had planned to take matters into his own hands by talking to me before the FBI’s involvement. At one point he admitted, “My brother is a real asshole, but he’s innocent. I wish you could have that as your next headline,” he said.
Despite Andrew’s assurances, Bryan’s innocence — at least as told by his brother — felt, at best, complicated.
A trip to Bryan’s hometown of Lawrenceville did little to help abate the feeling. By late September, the scandal was largely forgotten by the Lawrenceville locals, if known at all. Andrew stopped returning calls, emails, and texts; I later found he had been arrested for criminal trespass and simple assault and, as of this writing, is being held in Gwinnett County’s correctional center. Most residents I spoke to in the strip mall just a half mile from Bryan Hamade’s family home could barely recall the scandal; one teenage girl I spoke to — wearing a Collins Hill High School T-shirt (Bryan’s high school) — didn’t recognize his name, though she had heard of the nude photo scandal.
Only those inside or near the Hamade family’s circle seemed to know of Bryan or his potential involvement. McKenzie Smith, the girlfriend of Bryan’s brother Andrew, described Bryan over a Facebook message as “really not that interesting of a person. There’s not much to tell about him except he’s always been a creep, weird, very childish, and immature. The only reason I’ve even come In contact with Brian[sic] is because I have a child with his deadbeat egotistical brother Andrew,” she said.
Bryan’s internet presence, though — while mostly scrubbed — is far more helpful in understanding Bryan’s character, revealing what is, by now, a somewhat familiar portrait of a creature of the internet. In my brief phone conversation, Bryan described himself to me as “more of a Redditor than a 4chan guy” (meaning that he was more at home on the mainstream site than the chaotic and often darker 4chan boards), and the few cached pages that remain of his Reddit account reveal Bryan as a near-constant presence across a number of diverse Reddit sub-communities. Put another way, Bryan’s vibrant and active online persona bears little resemblance to the bland, even depressing portrait painted by those who knew him in the real world.
In a number of archived Reddit posts obtained through archive.org over nearly three years, Bryan appears to be a devoted Reddit user. In one instance, he’s posting as a fawning fan in the actor Peter Dinklage’s Ask Me Anything Reddit Q&A or posting about his technical computer prowess.
Other times his Reddit posts reveal the “weird, very childish, and immature” Bryan Hamade. One archived post from r/gaming crudely pokes fun at the trans community. “I wouldn’t want a transgendered person working at my business. They make people uncomfortable. Pick a dick or a vagina and stick with it,” he wrote.
In another thread, written less than a month before the photo leak, archived on the site Readditing, Bryan disparages women on a thread about the dating app Tinder:
And another archived Reddit post also shows Bryan Hamade posting to the now shut-down r/photobucketplunder subreddit, where redditors access and post albums of nude and sexual photographs found on women’s Photobucket accounts without their permission in a process that’s known online as “fusking.’”
This behavior — flagrant misogyny and the aggrieved overtones of men’s rights activism coupled with the treatment of women’s bodies (and private photos of those bodies) as property — has become a hallmark of the modern internet creep, whose most damaging actions seem to stem from either an intense longing for, resentment of, or fear of the female sex. And, while this very particular attitude toward women (as well as most minority groups) isn’t necessarily the driving motive behind all internet crimes, it is, in many cases, a belief system that seems to course through many of the internet’s darkest anonymous corners.
One archived post from Bryan asks, “Can someone with itunes who wants to see Sarah Silverman naked as much as I do please screencap said scene from Take This Waltz available now on itunes?”
Other posts, if only jokingly, also allude to an interest in not only celebrities (it’s been widely reported that Bryan’s Twitter account followed and interacted with numerous celebrities, including McKayla Maroney, whose pictures were leaked) but online voyeurism of all kinds. In a post to the subreddit r/funny, Bryan wrote, “A big thank you to Facebook: Letting guys masturbate to girls they have no shot with since 2004”
A source close to the Hamade family noted that this interest in celebrities dates back to subliminalproductions.us, a website that, according to Who.is, is still registered to Bryan (it’s since been taken down). “You can trace Bryan’s ‘first’ foray into the online message boarding back to SP boards — Subliminal Productions message boards,” the source said. “There were boards on his site about posting celebrity nude photos so the idea’s been there since he was young. And his knowledge of computers is unfathomable. He was like the Banksy of the cyber world.”
None of this circumstantial evidence, however, gets us any closer to the truth of who is responsible for the celebrity photo leaks. Of the dozens of people I asked about Bryan’s possible involvement, only Andrew Hamade’s girlfriend, McKenzie Smith, answered on record. When asked if Bryan purchased the photos, her reply was definitive. “Yeah he bought them,” she wrote via Facebook message. She refused any further comment, except to say that the FBI had seized Andrew’s phone, though a spokesperson for the FBI’s Los Angeles field office would neither confirm nor deny involvement in any investigation.
Only one other source close to Bryan reached out with any detailed claims about Bryan’s involvement with the photo leaks. “I can tell you this for a fact, Bryan personally did not hack the iCloud but he has a bunch of other friends who did. Bryan is nothing short of a computer genius but he didn’t hack it,” the source alleged. The person did, however, suggest that Bryan purchased the photos with intent to distribute them. “I swear to you, Bryan didn’t hack it but he did make money from the majority of the pictures.”
According to the source, Bryan paid for the majority of what one of his hacker friends had in his possession, in order to ransom them for bitcoin. “When that happened to not work, he took them down,” the source said. “Bryan said to Andrew in a text, ‘hey man come downstairs, I think I broke the internet,’” the source alleged, noting that Bryan Hamade’s silence had less to do with the celebrity scandal and more to do with fears of other illegal material on his hard drive. “He’s afraid if the FBI gets involved and sees the years of illegally downloaded and pirated material that’s on there.”
While two sources close to Bryan and the family believe he bought (though none could explain where the money would have come from) and distributed the pictures from the original hackers, the conventional wisdom seems to suggest that the actual hacks took place over multiple years and are the result of active trading on cloud hacking websites like AnonIB, where dedicated communities of hackers trade user information and request individual iCloud hacks for specific women, both celebrities and unknown civilians. In an anonymous post shortly after the leaks on AnonIB, one user claimed the hacks took place over “several months of long and hard work.”
One InfoSec researcher who wished to remain anonymous alleged to me that he believed Bryan lied about his bitcoin donations, saying he believed he’d found Bryan’s blockchain bitcoin address. He “received 0.25 bitcoin from 7 different people,” the researcher alleged. In our conversation, Bryan agreed to send me his bitcoin wallet address but never provided it. Much of the other circumstantial evidence aimed against Bryan came from anonymous tipsters with burner email accounts claiming to have new screenshots of Bryan’s desktop. Compelling, but seemingly unreliable, like nearly all the evidence of Bryan Hamade’s involvement and possible connection to the original hackers, which is tenuous at best and conspiratorial at the very least.
Filth, bullshit, and fluff aside, the internet is uniquely built for solving mysteries. Misinformation and hoaxes propagate quickly, but are also corrected and debunked with unprecedented speed. Vetting facts has never been easier or more accessible. And yet the internet’s darkest and anonymous corners are home to very real and seemingly unsolvable mysteries — a place where the truth can elude even its most diligent pursuers. Such appears to be the case for Bryan Hamade, at least for now.
In the month since first speaking to Bryan, I have twice traveled to his hometown in suburban Georgia. I’ve spoken to friends, family, neighbors, and local, state, and federal law enforcement. I’ve been kicked off a front lawn. I’ve spent countless hours scouring archived pages of now-deleted sites and far too much time in some of the most vile communities on the internet. I’ve convinced myself of Bryan’s guilt and innocence time and time again, and yet the answer to my initial question — is Bryan Hamade responsible for the biggest celebrity photo hack in recent history? — is as unclear now as it was on the morning of Sept. 1.
And yet, despite Bryan’s bland life and lack of a smoking gun, his case remains compelling and disturbing six weeks later; regardless of innocence or guilt, his story exemplifies that of the increasingly insidious internet creep.
Like Christopher Chaney and other accused hackers before him, Bryan’s potential motives aren’t grand overtures to demonstrate the nature of internet privacy, nor do they seem sociopathic or hell-bent on inciting chaos. Bryan’s motivations — even if he wasn’t the original distributor of the photos — appear to revolve around making a quick buck and, more importantly (and as evidenced by his timestamp bragging), impressing the anonymous cabal of Reddit and 4chan users, where Bryan joked around, argued, and seemed most like himself. In the way that a student might bully or put down another in a schoolyard to secure a reputation with a specific crowd, Bryan’s failed photo ransom seems to be an attempt to become a legend in the digital community where he actually lived.
And it worked. Though very few traces of Bryan’s past online life remain, his Steam video game profile is still intact. It’s there, under the comments section, where the last remnants of Bryan Hamade’s current internet legacy are memorialized. “World Wide Hero,” one reads. “You da real mvp,” goes another. And, of course, “ty bro.. if u need to run from murica i can give u shelter in europe.. :D”