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Alfred Anaya took pride in his generous service guarantee. Though his stereo installation business, Valley Custom Audio Fanatics, was just a one-man operation based out of his San Fernando, California, home, he offered all of his clients a lifetime warranty: If there was ever any problem with his handiwork, he would fix it for the cost of parts alone—no questions asked.
Anaya’s customers typically took advantage of this deal when their fiendishly loud subwoofers blew out or their fiberglass speaker boxes developed hairline cracks. But in late January 2009, a man whom Anaya knew only as Esteban called for help with a more exotic product: a hidden compartment that Anaya had installed in his Ford F-150 pickup truck. Over the years, these secret stash spots—or traps, as they’re known in automotive slang—have become a popular luxury item among the wealthy and shady alike. This particular compartment was located behind the truck’s backseat, which Anaya had rigged with a set of hydraulic cylinders linked to the vehicle’s electrical system. The only way to make the seat slide forward and reveal its secret was by pressing and holding four switches simultaneously: two for the power door locks and two for the windows.
Esteban said the seat was no longer responding to the switch combination and that no amount of jiggling could make it budge. He pleaded with Anaya to take a look.
Anaya was unsettled by this request, for he had suspicions about the nature of Esteban’s work. There is nothing intrinsically illegal about building traps, which are commonly used to hide everything from pricey jewelry to legal handguns. But the activity runs afoul of California law if an installer knows for certain that his compartment will be used to transport drugs. The maximum penalty is three years in prison. Anaya thus thought it wise to deviate from his standard no-questions-asked policy before agreeing to honor his warranty. “There’s nothing in there I shouldn’t know about, is there?” he asked. Esteban assured him that he needn’t worry.
Esteban drove the F-150 to Anaya’s modest ranch-style house and parked by the back porch. A friend of his, who introduced himself as Cesar, followed right behind in a black Honda Ridgeline truck. The 37-year-old Anaya, a boyishly handsome man whose neck and arms are covered with tattoos of dice and Japanese art, tested the switches that controlled the truck’s trap. He heard the hydraulics whirr to life, but the seat stayed firmly in place. He would have to use brute force.
Anaya punched a precise hole through the upholstery with his 24-volt Makita drill, probing for the screws that anchored the seat to the hydraulics. After a few moments he heard a loud pop as the drill seemed to puncture something soft. When he finally managed to remove the backseat, he saw what he had hit: a wad of cash about 4 inches thick. The whole compartment was overflowing with such bundles, several of which spilled onto the truck’s floor. Esteban had jammed the trap by stuffing it with too much cash—over $800,000 in total.
A common hacker refrain is that technology is always morally neutral. The culture’s libertarian ethos holds that creators shouldn’t be faulted if someone uses their gadget or hunk of code to cause harm; the people who build things are under no obligation to meddle in the affairs of the adults who consume their wares.