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  • 10.15.14

Hackers vs. Scorpion: Walter O’Brien Responds To Scrutiny Of Real-Life Claims Fueling TV’s “Scorpion”

Mounting skepticism and seeming contradictions have hackers, IT experts, and computer enthusiasts challenging the veracity of accomplishments claimed by Walter O’Brien, the self-described computer genius behind CBS’s Scorpion, and the media covering him. A look at the drama behind the drama.

Hackers vs. Scorpion: Walter O’Brien Responds To Scrutiny Of Real-Life Claims Fueling TV’s “Scorpion”

Is the Scorpion real?

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The promotional push for CBS’s Scorpion has showcased Walter O’Brien as the 197-IQ hacker whose real-life exploits in thwarting terrorism and disasters inspired the TV show, to the extent where the lead character and title bear his real-life and hacker names, and O’Brien is an executive producer.

But skepticism has been growing among information technology (IT), hacker, and computer enthusiast communities about the validity of O’Brien’s claims–from the fantastic to the mundane–that have appeared in numerous media outlets, including Fast Company. They have been alerting media (including this reporter) to several seeming contradictions, exaggerated achievements, and misleading images, even in more minor claims, that call into question O’Brien’s more stellar accomplishments. The amount of reader and social media feedback to Fast Company and other media outlets–including CNET, which also attempted to look into the allegations–prompted a closer look at these assertions, and a call to O’Brien for his response.

Walter O’BrienPhoto: courtesy of CBS

“People in our industry tend to know who the stars are,” says Asher Langton, a San Francisco security intelligence engineer, who’s been particularly vocal on Twitter. “While there are talented people doing classified or proprietary work, it would be surprising that someone with O’Brien’s claimed accomplishments would be virtually unknown.”

After threads on Slash/Dot, Reddit, and Twitter began raising suspicions in August, Techdirt’s Mike Masnik collated many of these inconsistencies in September 25 and October 6 articles. They include O’Brien’s absence from Top 10 IQ lists appearing on Google searches, as well as online information that contradicts O’Brien’s claim of participating and ranking in a particular computer competition, and the size, revenue, and accomplishments of his company, Scorpion Computer Services.

When alerted to the dissent, O’Brien tried to clarify several of these issues with us via email, but said non-disclosure agreements restricted more specific discussion of his work and time constraints prevented him from addressing follow-up questions.

IQ: Regarding his absence from IQ lists, O’Brien wrote: “I was about nine years old when a teacher administered my IQ test,” said O’Brien. “Unfortunately, as I was nine, I didn’t know that I needed to keep the paperwork for future reference.”

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O’Brien did not respond to a follow-up question asking, since he was using his IQ as a marketing element, why he didn’t later take a Mensa-endorsed test in case that figure got challenged.

Informational Olympiad Competition and U.S. Visa: O’Brien’s website says he represented Ireland in the 1993 Computing Olympics (formally, the Informational Olympiad in Informatics) in Argentina. Questions arose because O’Brien’s name does not appear on that year’s list of contestants. However, an archived web page of Charlie Daly, the Ireland team leader for that competition, cites O’Brien as a participant.

“The application from Ireland to compete had just missed the cut-off deadline,” said O’Brien. “We applied for an exception and it was granted, that’s why Ireland doesn’t appear in the registry, but did compete, and I certainly was there.”

(L) The original certificate of participation signed by event officials. (R) O’Brien (far right) with teammates standing under the Olympiad banner.Photos courtesy of Walter O’Brien

Other alleged contradictions surround O’Brien’s claimed sixth-place ranking, though it’s unclear whether it referred to 1993 Olympiad or in an earlier competition. Techdirt’s Masnick noted a link from O’Brien’s alma mater, University of Sussex, reporting the Ireland team came in 90th, but that a draft of his U.S. visa application specified sixth. (Masnick said the application was removed from O’Brien’s website, so he reposted it here).

O’Brien did not respond to a follow-up question asking if he knew why, since this link listed final rankings, he would not have been added, especially if he’d placed sixth.

Business size, revenue, and location: Some online information appeared to counter Scorpion’s current size of 2600 people in 20 countries with $1.3 billion in revenues, prompting Techdirt to also question an earlier mention of a $204 billion venture fund, which it reposted here.

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Credibility.com mentions a single employee, earnings of $66,000, and a Burbank UPS store address, while a Wikidirectories.org page describes Scorpion as a $1-$10 million company with 1-15 employees, with a West Los Angeles apartment building address that was also mentioned on an archived web page. Further confusing matters was O’Brien’s website featuring a building with the Scorpion name on the side, bearing a striking resemblance to the Leonardo Glass Cube in Bad Driburg, Germany.

Click to expand

Sources, speaking on background and not for attribution, explained that such business listing sites are community-powered directories whose information can be updated by the business owner (which O’Brien says he did not do) or anyone in the community, with baseline data coming from a variety of sources (i.e. market research, industry earnings averages, etc.). As a result, their accuracy can’t be verified.

O’Brien said Scorpion was run virtually, to reduce overhead, utilizing approximately 2,600 pre-screened independent contractors on an as-needed basis to solve large software problems for companies, individuals, and governments. “Most of our systems are either in the cloud (like Amazon’s) or at a large customer’s data center (like a military base), so we spend our time either at a customer site or telecommuting from our laptops,” he said. “Because we are virtual (and for security reasons), as with many companies, we use a P.O. box for our address.”

O’Brien also stood by the $204 billion venture fund. That figure “was true at the time,” said O’Brien. “That statement simply referred to the total net worth of all the investors and venture capitalists that Scorpion had a relationship with and often hire Scorpion for due diligence. This is collectively referred to as a fund source as we are allowed to show these investors any new companies or inventions that we thought were worth the investors taking a closer look at.”

Regarding the Photoshopped German building, he added, “I apologize if the building image on the website was misleading, as it was just a cool graphic that our website designer provided years ago. To me it was clearly a made up image since it has a large scorpion tail reflected in the glass and no sky in the background, but I can see how you could think it was our headquarters.”

Elyes Gabel plays Walter O’Brien in Scorpion.Photo: CBS

Interest from Ireland

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A Dublin IT manager and white hat hacker, who did not want his identity revealed beyond his Twitter address, contacted Fast Company after tracking down a professor who claimed to be misrepresented in a 1992 accomplishment posted on the website for Strike Force, another of O’Brien’s businesses. (It reads: “Invited to speak at the Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science conference at the University of Limerick by special invite from Dr. Padraig Cunningham. The youngest Scientist ever invited to present his SPEAKART project. This project was a fifth generation computer application, in the Dublin Hitachi research lab, which resulted in being offered an apprentice position at HITACHI.”)

“That’s not true that I invited him to speak,” said Padraig Cunningham, now a professor in computer science at University College in Dublin, when contacted by Fast Company. “And he wasn’t offered an apprentice position at the Hitachi Dublin lab. I’d just finished working there in September, 1992, and he was not offered a job.

“I Googled his name and found this softer version of events in a news article published on one of his sites,” he added. (It reads: “Later that year [1992] Dr. Padraig Cunningham of T.C.D. invited him to attend the two-day Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science Conference in Limerick University.”)

“It appears he later hardened his claims that he was invited to speak and got a position at Hitachi,” said Cunningham. “This is a really old item, but it’s consistent with the idea that he’s become more effusive about his claims.”

O’Brien did not respond to Cunningham’s comments.

Origin stories and Techmanity

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In an odd aside, apart from the hacker dissent, but in line with seemingly conflicting narratives, another discrepancy arose around how the show came about. O’Brien told Fast Company that he approached Scooter Braun, another Scorpion executive producer (who has been covered by this publication in the past as a member of the Fast Company MCP 1000 list) has with the idea of making a show about him in order to attract more genius employees to his company. However, a Braun representative said Braun was the one to find Walter, not the other way around. A CBS representative was unaware of this disparity. However, in this video of the Techmanity conference later that day (for which Fast Company developed a program track), Braun and O’Brien appeared to be on the same page about O’Brien’s version.

In his October 6 Techdirt article, Masnick, who attended the conference, speculated the panel’s advertised Q&A in the program might have been cancelled to avoid the brewing controversy. Representatives from both CBS and Fast Company’s events division said that the Q&A was never supposed to take place. “The Q&As were never guaranteed for any of the session, and for the Scorpion session in particular, that was never a part of the negotiation in terms of getting them to come to the show,” says Kim Last, senior editor for Fast Company Events. “It was a mistake that it was printed as part of the agenda on the Techmanity website.”

(L-R) Robert Patrick as Agent Cabe Gallo and Linda Hunt as Hetty Lange from NCIS: Los Angeles brief Elyes Gabel’s Walter O’Brien.Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS

Thwarting terrorism

Other suspicions from this community over O’Brien’s claims of aiding national security efforts arose from hunches based on its own understanding of technology. By way of example, Langton offered the following explanation for his mistrust:

“O’Brien claims to have caught the Boston bombers, but the details vary between tellings–either he tracked motion on all cameras in a two-mile radius, or used `facial recognition’ to search for a lack of surprise when the bombs exploded,” Langton told Fast Company. “The logistics of gathering and processing all of this data would be daunting. Actually getting something useful using these techniques–in three days, no less–seems wildly implausible.

“I don’t claim to know the state-of-the-art in emotion-recognition software, but I’d be shocked if one could infer the individual emotions of thousands of fast-moving people solely from distant surveillance cameras of varying quality,” he added.

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“As for tracking motion in a two-mile radius,” he continued, “even with access to all of the footage, tracking the motion of millions of objects across thousands of different cameras, as he describes, would likely be computationally infeasible. But even if that could be accomplished, using the resulting information to find the bombers would be akin to finding a needle in many, many haystacks.”

O’Brien did not respond to Langton’s comments directly, but wrote: “Much of our company’s work, especially with military/government clients is subject to strict Non-Disclosure Agreements, so we can’t say more than has been cleared for news.

“I’ve answered all the questions I have time to right now,” he replied in response to follow-up questions. “All that remains to be said is that I’m proud of and stand by my career, my company, and all the good we have done.”

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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