by R. U. Sirius & George Gleason
It’s no secret that mischievous young computer hackers get into trouble with the law. Occasionally, as in the case of the original legendary phone phreak John Draper aka Cap’n Crunch, they wind up in jail, although for the most part, their cyber-joyriding pranks are merely wrist-slapped. Suspended sentences. Probation. Charges dropped along with promises not to hang with the wrong crowd. Law enforcement quickly learned that it is not in their best interests to lock the hacker—and all that tricky expertise—in with a bunch of hardcore criminals. Indeed, the unmasked hacker may end up working as a security agent—for the phone company, a bank, or even some federal agency. Computer “crime” can be seen as the bush league, training for the Security Industry.
This relatively benign view of phreaking held through the first years of the personal computer industry. After all, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs gave birth to the PC partly through funds gathered by selling the “blue box,” a device for phone phreaking. And back before the digital revolution was taken over by the marketing departments, it was common knowledge that hackers were the backbone of the industry. Hacking is about exploration and access—exploring the limits of systems, finding what you need, whether to satisfy your curiosity or to complete some useful work. Proprietary concerns are not always treated with the utmost respect. Since hackers also tend to be pranksters, they can at times tend to be downright disrespectful towards authority. But a revolutionary conspiracy of self-conscious anarchists, this subculture has never been. Not quite.
Cut to 1990. A year that will live in infamy. For some unfathomable reason, agents of the law decided that this is the time to get busy stomping on self-expression. Just briefly: we had the bust of an art gallery in Cincinnati for showing Robert Mapplethorpe’s infamous photos, we had police agents entering a music shop in Florida and seizing dangerous CDs, records and cassettes, we had the 2 Live Crew busts, we had Jock Sturges —a reputable photographer—busted and all of his everything seized for daring to process photos of the young nude body, and we had the US Armed Forces invasion of Humboldt County, uprooting a fistful of the killer weed to impress the president of Colombia.
It is in this context that we come upon Operation Sun Devil and the concerted crackdown against young computer hackers by the US Secret Service.
Think of this calendar of events as a kind of scorecard that you can refer hack to as you read this section’s interviews with such Dramatis personae as Craig Neidorf, Steve Jackson , John Barlow , Mitch Kay or, et al.
Summer 1988: Hackers’ Convention 4.0. CBS News shows up with prepared script intending to depict hackers as dangerous criminals. This was particularly bizarre given that this Hackers gathering, formed by Steven Levy (author of the book Hackers) and Stewart Brand with the Whole Earth Institute, is frequented primarily by older, comfortable, relatively law-abiding computer fiends. Many of the people who were portrayed as “high in the Santa Cruz mountains plotting the downfall of the computer industry” were actually CEOs in that industry. Many more were, at the very least, major stockholders and well-paid executives in mainline companies. The dangerous-looking longhaired man seen looking at violent computer games while playing with a yoyo by millions of newswatching Americans was none other than Clifford Stoll, National Security Agency collaborator and author of The Cuckoo’s Egg. The CBS coverage was probably the first inkling for the older 60’s-generation hacker set that something might be amiss in their world.
Many who were portrayed as “high in the Santa Cruz mountains plotting the downfall of the computer industry” were actually CEOs in that industry
November 1988: The Internet Worm runs wild across many of the nations’ computer networks, shutting down an estimated 6,600 computers tied to the Internet and causing an estimated loss of 40 to 90 million dollars. The code, written by Robert Morris, was intended to map the net. In the words of John Barlow, “It was going to go around to every node on the net and report back in and tell just how big this sucker is.” But, due to faulty code, it winds up reproducing itself at a phenomenal clip, eating up all the cyberspace in its path and closing many systems. Within a day of Morris’ arrest, it is revealed that his father, also Robert Morris, is the chief computer security expert at the National Security Agency. Those who wish to conjecture about the possible meaning of this may proceed at their own risk.
December 1988: Legion of Doom member “The Prophet” downloads a Bell South document on the administration of E-911 systems, and then posts it around bulletin board systems (BBSs) such as Jolnet. It reaches Knight Lightening, aka Craig Neidorf. Knight republishes it in his electronic magazine, Phrack.
June 1989: A group calling itself NuPrometheus league releases bits and pieces of Apple source code: the software equivalent of Macintosh DNA. NuPrometheus promises more to come. Apple has a proverbial cow.
December 1989: Harper’s Magazine hosts a virtual hackers’ conference on The WELL, a BBS whose members include a number of computer and communications industry pioneers. Hackers and cyberpunks of all stripes attend. The result is published as a cover story.
January 15, 1990: AT&T has a spontaneous near-death experience in the form of a nationwide system crash. Somehow a rumor circulates that a coven of hackers had cast the deadly spell, though AT&T denies it. For its own part, AT&T never told the public that their vital calls would go through normally if they simply dialed the five-digit code for any other long distance carrier.
January 22, 1990: Robert Morris convicted of releasing the worm which temporarily shut down Internet.
January 24, 1990: Secret Service agents raid Acid Phreak and Phiber Optik (two of the more controversial participants in the above-mentioned Harper’s Magazine Conference), holding a gun to the head of Acid Phreak’s 12-year-old sister and confiscating all his electronic equipment including CDs and a telephone answering machine. “What’s this?” a Secret Service agent asked upon seeing the dread weapon of the youthful terrorist. “It’s a phone machine,” Acid Phreak replied. “What does it do?” the superstitious savage queried. “It answers phones,” Acid Phreak confessed.
“What’s this?” an SS agent asked upon seeing the dread weapon of the youthful terrorist. “It’s a phone machine” Acid Phreak replied
Though no charges are filed, these and other individuals are interrogated on suspicion of having caused the AT&T crash and of being key members of Legion of Doom. For the record, AT&T continued to maintain that hackers were not the cause of the crash. The alleged hackers’ conspiracy called the Legion of Doom took its name from the Superman movie and was, in fact, a loosely-knit group of friends with about as much formal structure as a glob of cybersocial protoplasm.
February 2, 1990: Secret Service agents raid Len Rose, aka Terminus. Rose, his wife and child, are terrorized at gunpoint, denied food and use of the bathroom. Calls to lawyers are denied, computers and other property are confiscated. Rose is eventually charged as part of the Legion of Doom conspiracy. His alleged crime: having bits of UNIX source code, some- thing as common among professional UNIX consultants as doctors having self-prescribed medicines in their homes.
February 7, 1990: In the by now familiar Gestapo style, the SS raids Robert Riggs (“The Prophet”), Franklin Darden (“The Leftist”) and Adam Grant (“The Urville” / “Necron 99”). This time, an indictment charges various federal felonies including fraud and conspiracy involving taking copies of proprietary software and unauthorized entry into the Bell South computer systems and specifically mentioned the Legion of Doom.
Bell South spends several months investigating the case before turning it over to the Secret Service, using the SS primarily as the enforcement arm of a corporate investigation, and spending 1.5 million dollars in the process. Since it’s a corporate, rather than government investigation, Freedom of Information laws don’t apply, raising an important issue that is sure to come up again in the future.
February 15, 1990: Craig Neidorf, editor of the aforementioned online magazine Phrack is raided, charged (among other things) with publishing the Bell South E-911 document. His computers—in essence the electronic printing presses for his magazine—are confiscated, putting Phrack out of business. Bell South claims that the E-911 document is worth over $79,000.
Late February 1990: Rich Andrews, operator of Jolnet, is visited by Secret Service. Andrews’ crime? Just to be on the safe side, he’d informed AT&T officials about the E-911 document which had appeared on his network. As a reward for his good citizenry, his computer equipment is confiscated. No charges are filed. Significantly, the computer also contains the electronic mail of uninvolved Jolnet subscribers, raising substantial privacy issues.
March 1, 1990: SS raids of Steve Jackson Games and its employees. Jackson is the second largest game publisher (after Milton Bradley), has published numerous fantasy role playing games, and was about to launch one called GURPS Cyberpunk. The SS confiscates computers at Jackson’s offices and employees’ homes. No charges are ever specified but connections between Steve Jackson’s assistant, and GURPS Cyberpunk author Lloyd Blankenship, and the Legion of Doom were mentioned. To this date, equipment has not been returned. Jackson’s company has lost over $125,000 and is close to bankruptcy.
May 1, 1990: John Barlow is visited by FBI Special Agent Richard Baxter. Baxter is investigating the NuPrometheus League which he calls the “New Prosthesis League.”
Barlow—who is an exquisite writer as well as the Grateful Dead’s second poet—writes up his bizarre Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass experience with the FBI man the following day and posts it on the WELL, a bulletin board run by the Whole Earth Review, under the name “Crime and Puzzlement”:
“Poor agent Baxter didn’t know a ROM chip from a vise-grip when he arrived, so much of our time was spent trying to educate him on the nature of the thing which had been stolen. Or whether “stolen” was the right term for what happened to it.
“You know things have rather jumped the groove when potential suspects must explain to law enforcers the nature of their alleged penetration.”
The strangest and most laughable revelation in Barlow’s piece is that the FBI had it as a matter of record that John Draper aka Cap’n Crunch, the famous phone phreak mentioned in the first paragraph of this piece, is the CEO of Autodesk. For those unfamiliar with the world of hackers and computer programmers, this would be somewhat akin to them believing that Bart Simpson is the President of Fox, ‘cept Draper wasn’t even working for Autodesk anymore.
Remember. This is the Federal Bureau of Investigation we’re talking about here. A slow 9-year-old with a telephone and 15 minutes to investigate would discover the information to be ludicrously false. This is kind of a scary comment.
May 4, 1990: Robert Morris Jr. sentenced to a $10,000 fine and 400 hours community service for unleashing the Internet virus.
May 9, 1990: The Secret Service and Prosecutors in Phoenix Arizona announce 28 new raids under Operation Sun Devil. In three days, 28 search warrants are executed in 14 cities; 42 computers and 23,000 disks are confiscated. Only four arrests are made. Most of the raids are targeted against credit code abusers and similar minor players. However, confiscations of BBSs contribute to an overall chilling effect on electronic expression and association.
Late Spring 1990: PC software pioneer Mitch Kapor, independent rancher/Grateful Dead songwriter John Barlow, John Gilmore, pioneer at Sun Microsystems, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, and others form the Electronic Frontier Foundation: to protect freedom of speech and expression at the leading edge of computer technology and electronic publishing.
July 23, 1990: Neidorf trial begins.
July 27, 1990: Neidorf trial ends. Defense shreds prosecution case and the trial ends with a Southern Bell employee revealing that the allegedly illicit and dangerous $79,000 document was, in fact, available to regular Southern Bell consumers for less than $30. The Government drops the case in exchange for a promise from Neidorf to stay out of trouble for a year. The price of victory for Craig: over $100,000 in legal expenses.
The allegedly illicit and dangerous $79,000 document was available to Southern Bell customers for less than $30
August 1990: Steve Jackson Games still suffering as Secret Service refuses to return all their property, provide a lawful search warrant, or give evidence of any pending indictment or other legal action.
August 1990: CPSR (Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility) file Freedom of Information Act suit in Federal District Court, seeking FBI records on the secret monitoring of computer BBSs (bulletin board systems) across the country.
August 16, 1990: Several more young hackers arrested including “Zod,” who was popped for operating a BBS chat system on an Air Force UNIX computer accessed via a University computer system. Unauthorised copies of game software and system source code are found in his computer as well. Case continued to October.
As We Go To Press/Fall 1990: The Secret Service still refuses to return computers or other property confiscated during the year. In many cases, SS also refuses to reveal details of warrants or to file charges. Victims remain in legal and personal limbo, their businesses and careers jeopardized or destroyed.