Kelly O’Brien on Kilkenny man Walter O’Briens rise from teenage hacker to US government troubleshooter.
A former child prodigy turned high-profile hacker, Walter O’Brien, aka Scorpion, has a life story you wouldn’t believe.
It’s so fantastical, in fact, many don’t. Admittedly, hearing someone claim they hacked Nasa when they were 13 and not only got away with it, but were rewarded for it too, can be a tough pill to swallow but, for every one of his detractors, Walter has hundreds, if not thousands, of fans eagerly proclaiming his sincerity — largely thanks to the successful CBS show Scorpion, which is loosely based on his life.
Considering his current lifestyle and his unmistakable American drawl, you’d be forgiven for thinking 40-year-old Walter was born and raised in the US. But ‘twas far from Nasa this young fella was reared.
The son of a dairy farmer, Walter spent the first six years of his life in Wexford before his family moved to a small farm on the outskirts of Kilkenny City.
From a very young age, he knew he was different. He was passionate about subjects his peers had no interest in and, for every question they asked, Walter asked 10 more, a trait which earned him nothing but criticism from his teachers.
After saving up to buy a computer, Walter immersed himself in cyberculture. Before long, he was hocking his computer skills on the Kilkenny High Street, fixing technical issues for various bars and retails outlets.
Though he was only a teenager, Walter would always arrive dressed in a full suit — a quirk that made him particularly memorable to his early customers.
“I remember him coming to help me out when I was starting up Paris Texas,” said local vintner Pat Crotty. “Even then, he knew things people didn’t have a clue about and was very smart when it came to doing things with computers.
“It was clear that it was moving too fast for the rest of us and he left a short time later. I remember even as a 16-year-old he stood out and used to wear a suit.”
Derek Devoy, a taxi driver in Kilkenny, went to secondary school with Walter and said the other pupils just didn’t understand him.
“We both started at the same time in school,” said Derek. “We both started later than everyone else so we were the new people, the outsiders. Walter wasn’t in any way normal.
“He was going around Kilkenny as a kid in a suit fixing things for people, computers and that. Everyone thought he was a fruitcake. But he was just super-intelligent.”
Business was booming for the teenage Walter but he became even busier once he moved his company, now called Scorpion Computer Services, to the US.
He chose to hire “fellow geniuses”, a requirement that initially led to a whole host of problems.
“They were very good at what they did and very honest, but the higher their IQ the lower their EQ — emotional intelligence, common sense, social skills. I started realising this was a big problem, especially if I put two of them on a project and they started killing each other while insulting the customer,” said Walter in a telephone interview with the Irish Examiner.
“So what I did was, I started learning what was wrong with me by learning what was wrong with them and trying to figure out what was this EQ thing and how can I learn it. I’m still learning it but I’m getting a little better at it.”
Today, Walter claims 2,500 geniuses wor with Scorpion Computer Services, and 500 ‘supernannies’ — people with high EQs and “reasonable” IQs who can babysit the geniuses when they’re dealing with customers.
While they started off telling customers they could “solve any technical problem”, they now say they can solve any problem, at all.
“We just solve any problem, period,” said Walter. “If we have to hire lawyers or doctors or whatever, we’ll do whatever we have to do to solve the problem.
“We’ve helped in everything from catching terrorists to stopping wars to saving lives.”
While Walter is no stranger to media attention, he hit the headlines recently when it was claimed that Scorpion was directly involved in the successful search for the Boston marathon bombers. It was also reported that Walter was instrumental in freeing a female journalist from a Libyan jail. Walter has said he is unable to verify some of these, and claims that, due to non-disclosure agreements and confidentiality clauses, not to be able to discuss them. This standpoint has been the subject of widespread debate both online and in the media, with some accusing Walter of not being all he claims to be.
“We do security for some of the biggest companies and some of the biggest families in the world,” said Walter. “They’re happy we secure them and they’re happy we know how to keep secrets.”
The real-life Walter O’Brien at Comic-Con last month.
Some things can be confirmed, however — most notably that Walter, who studied artificial intelligence and computer science at university, was given a special visa by the US Government for ‘extraordinary ability’ and is now a US citizen.
Separately, the chairman of the Aerospace Defense Systems at the US Army Base Fort Stewart Georgia confirmed in a written reference that they carried out exceptional due diligence on Walter and confirmed that Scorpion has been engaged in a number of highly confidential cyber security threats with the US Department of Defense.
“My company is protecting people, we’re saving lives,” said Walter. “And if someone has a problem with that, I don’t know what more I can say.”
Walter’s family all still live here and he has even been a strong supporter of a local suicide prevention initiative set up in Kilkenny last year and highlighted in the Irish Examiner earlier this week.
“It personally resonates with me because a lot of very smart people, kids, commit suicide,” he said.
“They don’t fit in, they’re being bullied, feeling lonely, not good at sports, their family doesn’t understand them, and they end up in a situation where they just end up killing themselves if we can’t get to them in time.”
More recently, Walter was in Kilkenny to receive a certificate from former Kilkenny mayor Andrew McGuinness, who commended him on the “great pride” he brings to the city.
Walter has also been nominated as Irishman of the Year by the Los Angeles Mayor’s office.
It seems that, whichever way he turns, Walter is either subjected to high praise or harsh criticism.
Make of him what you will, but one thing is for certain – Walter O’Brien doesn’t do things by halves. That, at least, isn’t up for debate.
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