I. The Bumper
The trip to Delaware was only supposed to last a day. David Pokora, a bespectacled University of Toronto senior with scraggly blond hair down to his shoulders, needed to travel south to fetch a bumper that he’d bought for his souped-up Volkswagen Golf R.ALL CONVERSE Japan Exclusive HI COLORS Limited Blue 100 Chuck STAR Taylor Fwrxqwd
The American seller had balked at shipping to Canada, so Pokora arranged to have the part sent to a buddy, Justin May, who lived in Wilmington. The young men, both ardent gamers, shared a fascination with the inner workings of the Xbox; though they’d been chatting and collaborating for years, they’d never met in person. Pokora planned to make the eight-hour drive on a Friday, grab a leisurely dinner with May, then haul the metallic-blue bumper back home to Mississauga, Ontario, that night or early the next morning. His father offered to tag along so they could take turns behind the wheel of the family’s Jetta.
An hour into their journey on March 28, 2014, the Pokoras crossed the Lewiston–Queenston Bridge and hit the border checkpoint on the eastern side of the Niagara Gorge. An American customs agent gently quizzed them about their itinerary as he scanned their passports in his booth. He seemed ready to wave the Jetta through when something on his monitor caught his eye.
“What’s … Xenon?” the agent asked, stumbling over the pronunciation of the word.
David, who was in the passenger seat, was startled by the question. Xenon was one of his online aliases, a pseudonym he often used—along with Xenomega and DeToX—when playing Halo or discussing his Xbox hacking projects with fellow programmers. Why would that nickname, familiar to only a handful of gaming fanatics, pop up when his passport was checked?
Pokora’s puzzlement lasted a few moments before he remembered that he’d named his one-man corporation Xenon Development Studios; the business processed payments for the Xbox service he operated that gave monthly subscribers the ability to unlock achievements or skip levels in more than 100 different games. He mentioned the company to the customs agent, making sure to emphasize that it was legally registered. The agent instructed the Pokoras to sit tight for just a minute longer.
As he and his father waited for permission to enter western New York, David detected a flutter of motion behind the idling Jetta. He glanced back and saw two men in dark uniforms approaching the car, one on either side. “Something’s wrong,” his father said, an instant before a figure appeared outside the passenger-side window. As a voice barked at him to step out of the vehicle, Pokora realized he’d walked into a trap.
In the detention area of the adjoining US Customs and Border Protection building, an antiseptic room with a lone metal bench, Pokora pondered all the foolish risks he’d taken while in thrall to his Xbox obsession. When he’d started picking apart the console’s software a decade earlier, it had seemed like harmless fun—a way for him and his friends to match wits with the corporate engineers whose ranks they yearned to join. But the Xbox hacking scene had turned sordid over time, its ethical norms corroded by the allure of money, thrills, and status. And Pokora had gradually become enmeshed in a series of schemes that would have alarmed his younger self: infiltrating game developers’ networks, counterfeiting an Xbox prototype, even abetting a burglary on Microsoft’s main campus.
Pokora had long been aware that his misdeeds had angered some powerful interests, and not just within the gaming industry; in the course of seeking out all things Xbox, he and his associates had wormed into American military networks too. But in those early hours after his arrest, Pokora had no clue just how much legal wrath he’d brought upon his head: For eight months he’d been under sealed indictment for conspiring to steal as much as $1 billion worth of intellectual property, and federal prosecutors were intent on making him the first foreign hacker to be convicted for the theft of American trade secrets. Several of his friends and colleagues would end up being pulled into the vortex of trouble he’d helped create; one would become an informant, one would become a fugitive, and one would end up dead.
Pokora could see his father sitting in a room outside the holding cell, on the other side of a thick glass partition. He watched as a federal agent leaned down to inform the elder Pokora, a Polish-born construction worker, that his only son wouldn’t be returning to Canada for a very long time; his father responded by burying his head in his calloused hands.
Gutted to have caused the usually stoic man such anguish, David wished he could offer some words of comfort. “It’s going to be OK, dad,” he said in a soft voice, gesturing to get his attention. “It’s going to be OK.” But his father couldn’t hear him through the glass.