By Donna Loughlin
Bryan Seely made a name for himself in 2014 by hacking the United States Secret Service. He admits it was a poor decision, but it has paid off for him in more ways than one.
Today, Bryan is a prominent and much sought-after cybersecurity expert and keynote speaker, largely thanks to his stunt—which he now says should’ve landed him in jail. But while it may have kickstarted a whole new career path for him, his exploits as a so-called “ethical hacker” also pulled him out of a dark spiral of depression and addiction that may have saved his life.
“I was hopelessly addicted to drugs, I was getting divorced, I was getting diagnosed with ADHD and I was battling depression,” he told me. “But something was looking out for me because I should have been dead a bunch of times. And for some reason, the path I took led to a lot of other things later.”
He’s not kidding. Within a year after hacking the Secret Service to expose a vulnerability in Google Maps’ business verification process, Bryan had written a book, delivered a widely shared Ted Talk and started consulting on cybersecurity.
So how did Bryan arrive at his complicated life and career crossroads?
He was born and raised by two missionary parents in Tokyo, Japan. Before going to college, he’d spent little time in the U.S. and after arriving here for school, he quickly realized that higher education was not for him. He attended a few classes and eventually dropped out to enlist in the Marines, where he spent just 18 months training to be a linguist. He was discharged due to health problems and ended up working as a military contractor overseas.
He returned to the U.S. and quickly married and had two children. But family life was often turbulent as both Bryan and his wife were battling drug addiction. Before he knew what had happened, he was a divorced father of three—including his wife’s daughter from a previous relationship—who was struggling with his sobriety and finding it difficult to build a meaningful career.
That’s when he decided to wiretap the government using the same Google verification loophole he had warned the company about months earlier. Google ignored his warnings, so he decided to get the government involved—they just didn’t know it. Using the Google Maps vulnerability he had discovered, he established a bogus listing for the FBI and Secret Service but routed incoming calls to the actual phone numbers. Then he set up a recording device and tapped dozens of calls.
Bryan confessed to the FBI and Secret Service and showed agents how businesses could exploit Google’s vulnerability. His mission was noble, but he was still put in handcuffs and given his Miranda rights. He laughs about it today but admits he was not thinking clearly when he staged his stunt and was lucky to emerge from it unscathed.
But he also credits it with turning his life around.
“I didn’t have a lot going for me at that point. I wasn’t in the best headspace. There was no destination. I wasn’t living a great life. But for some reason, I did this crazy thing and it led to a lot of other things that literally made my career. It became, ‘Ok, how can I be of service in the maximum way?’ It’s like a switch flipped. And it’s why I’m still here.”
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