And then... a highly unusual item whose novelty and calculated rhetoric won it headscratching attention in newspapers all over America. The US Attorney's office in Phoenix, Arizona, had issued a press release announcing a nationwide law enforcement crackdown against "illegal computer hacking activities." The sweep was officially known as "Operation Sundevil."
Eight paragraphs in the press release gave the bare facts: twenty-seven search warrants carried out on May 8, with three arrests, and a hundred and fifty agents on the prowl in "twelve" cities across America. (Different counts in local press reports yielded "thirteen," "fourteen," and "sixteen" cities.) Officials estimated that criminal losses of revenue to telephone companies "may run into millions of dollars." Credit for the Sundevil investigations was taken by the US Secret Service, Assistant US Attorney Tim Holtzen of Phoenix, and the Assistant Attorney General of Arizona, Gail Thackeray.
The prepared remarks of Garry M. Jenkins, appearing in a U.S. Department of Justice press release, were of particular interest. Mr. Jenkins was the Assistant Director of the US Secret Service, and the highest-ranking federal official to take any direct public role in the hacker crackdown of 1990.
"Today, the Secret Service is sending a clear message to those computer hackers who have decided to violate the laws of this nation in the mistaken belief that they can successfully avoid detection by hiding behind the relative anonymity of their computer terminals.(...) "Underground groups have been formed for the purpose of exchanging information relevant to their criminal activities. These groups often communicate with each other through message systems between computers called 'bulletin boards.' "Our experience shows that many computer hacker suspects are no longer misguided teenagers, mischievously playing games with their computers in their bedrooms. Some are now high tech computer operators using computers to engage in unlawful conduct."
Who were these "underground groups" and "hightech operators?" Where had they come from? What did they want? Who were they? Were they "mischievous?" Were they dangerous? How had "misguided teenagers" managed to alarm the United States Secret Service? And just how widespread was this sort of thing? Of all the major players in the Hacker Crackdown: the phone companies, law enforcement, the civil libertarians, and the "hackers" themselves - the "hackers" are by far the most mysterious, by far the hardest to understand, by far the weirdest.
Not only are "hackers" novel in their activities, but they come in a variety of odd subcultures, with a variety of languages, motives and values.
The earliest proto-hackers were probably those unsung mischievous telegraph boys who were summarily fired by the Bell Company in 1878.
Legitimate "hackers," those computer enthusiasts who are independent-minded but law-abiding, generally trace their spiritual ancestry to elite technical universities, especially M.I.T. and Stanford, in the 1960s.
But the genuine roots of the modern hacker underground can probably be traced most successfully to a now much-obscured hippie anarchist movement known as the Yippies. The Yippies, who took their name from the largely fictional "Youth International Party," carried out a loud and lively policy of surrealistic subversion and outrageous political mischief. Their basic tenets were flagrant sexual promiscuity, open and copious drug use, the political overthrow of any powermonger over thirty years of age, and an immediate end to the war in Vietnam, by any means necessary, including the psychic levitation of the Pentagon. The two most visible Yippies were Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Rubin eventually became a Wall Street broker. Hoffman, ardently sought by federal authorities, went into hiding for seven years, in Mexico, France, and the United States. While on the lam, Hoffman continued to write and publish, with help from sympathizers in the American anarcho-leftist underground. Mostly, Hoffman survived through false ID and odd jobs. Eventually he underwent facial plastic surgery and adopted an entirely new identity as one "Barry Freed." After surrendering himself to authorities in 1980, Hoffman spent a year in prison on a cocaine conviction.
Hoffman's worldview grew much darker as the glory days of the 1960s faded. In 1989, he purportedly committed suicide, under odd and, to some, rather suspicious circumstances.
Abbie Hoffman is said to have caused the Federal Bureau of Investigation to amass the single largest investigation file ever opened on an individual American citizen. (If this is true, it is still questionable whether the FBI regarded Abbie Hoffman a serious public threat - quite possibly, his file was enormous simply because Hoffman left colorful legendry wherever he went). He was a gifted publicist, who regarded electronic media as both playground and weapon. He actively enjoyed manipulating network TV and other gullible, imagehungry media, with various weird lies, mindboggling rumors, impersonation scams, and other sinister distortions, all absolutely guaranteed to upset cops, Presidential candidates, and federal judges. Hoffman's most famous work was a book self-reflexively known as Steal This Book, which publicized a number of methods by which young, penniless hippie agitators might live off the fat of a system supported by humorless drones. Steal This Book, whose title urged readers to damage the very means of distribution which had put it into their hands, might be described as a spiritual ancestor of a computer virus.
Hoffman, like many a later conspirator, made extensive use of pay-phones for his agitation work - in his case, generally through the use of cheap brass washers as coin-slugs.
During the Vietnam War, there was a federal surtax imposed on telephone service; Hoffman and his cohorts could, and did, argue that in systematically stealing phone service they were engaging in civil disobedience: virtuously denying tax funds to an illegal and immoral war. But this thin veil of decency was soon dropped entirely. Ripping-off the System found its own justification in deep alienation and a basic outlaw contempt for conventional bourgeois values. Ingenious, vaguely politicized varieties of rip-off, which might be described as "anarchy by convenience," became very popular in Yippie circles, and because rip-off was so useful, it was to survive the Yippie movement itself. In the early 1970s, it required fairly limited expertise and ingenuity to cheat payphones, to divert "free" electricity and gas service, or to rob vending machines and parking meters for handy pocket change. It also required a conspiracy to spread this knowledge, and the gall and nerve actually to commit petty theft, but the Yippies had these qualifications in plenty. In June 1971, Abbie Hoffman and a telephone enthusiast sarcastically known as "Al Bell" began publishing a newsletter called Youth International Party Line. This newsletter was dedicated to collating and spreading Yippie rip-off techniques, especially of phones, to the joy of the freewheeling underground and the insensate rage of all straight people.
As a political tactic, phone-service theft ensured that Yippie advocates would always have ready access to the long-distance telephone as a medium, despite the Yippies' chronic lack of organization, discipline, money, or even a steady home address.
Party Linewas run out of Greenwich Village for a couple of years, then "Al Bell" more or less defected from the faltering ranks of Yippiedom, changing the newsletter's name to TAP or Technical Assistance Program. After the Vietnam War ended, the steam began leaking rapidly out of American radical dissent. But by this time, "Bell" and his dozen or so core contributors had the bit between their teeth, and had begun to derive tremendous gut-level satisfaction from the sensation of pure technical power.
TAParticles, once highly politicized, became pitilessly jargonized and technical, in homage or parody to the Bell System's own technical documents, which TAP studied closely, gutted, and reproduced without permission. The TAP elite revelled in gloating possession of the specialized knowledge necessary to beat the system.
"Al Bell" dropped out of the game by the late 70s, and "Tom Edison" took over; TAP readers (some 1400 of them, all told) now began to show more interest in telex switches and the growing phenomenon of computer systems. In 1983, "Tom Edison" had his computer stolen and his house set on fire by an arsonist. This was an eventually mortal blow to TAP (though the legendary name was to be resurrected in 1990 by a young Kentuckian computer outlaw named "Predat0r.")
Because the phone network pre-dates the computer network, the scofflaws known as "phone phreaks" pre-date the scofflaws known as "computer hackers." In practice, today, the line between "phreaking" and "hacking" is very blurred, just as the distinction between telephones and computers has blurred. The phone system has been digitized, and computers have learned to "talk" over phone-lines. What's worse - and this was the point of the Mr. Jenkins of the Secret Service - some hackers have learned to steal, and some thieves have learned to hack.
Despite the blurring, one can still draw a few useful behavioral distinctions between "phreaks" and "hackers." Hackers are intensely interested in the "system" per se, and enjoy relating to machines. "Phreaks" are more social, manipulating the system in a rough-and-ready fashion in order to get through to other human beings, fast, cheap and under the table.
Phone phreaks love nothing so much as "bridges," illegal conference calls of ten or twelve chatting conspirators, seaboard to seaboard, lasting for many hours - and running, of course, on somebody else's tab, preferably a large corporation's. As phone-phreak conferences wear on, people drop out (or simply leave the phone off the hook, while they sashay off to work or school or babysitting), and new people are phoned up and invited to join in, from some other continent, if possible. Technical trivia, boasts, brags, lies, head-trip deceptions, weird rumors, and cruel gossip are all freely exchanged. The lowest rung of phone-phreaking is the theft of telephone access codes. Charging a phone call to somebody else's stolen number is, of course, a pig-easy way of stealing phone service, requiring practically no technical expertise. This practice has been very widespread, especially among lonely people without much money who are far from home. Code theft has flourished especially in college dorms, military bases, and, notoriously, among roadies for rock bands. Of late, code theft has spread very rapidly among Third Worlders in the US, who pile up enormous unpaid long-distance bills to the Caribbean, South America, and Pakistan.
The simplest way to steal phone-codes is simply to look over a victim's shoulder as he punches-in his own code-number on a public payphone. This technique is known as "shoulder-surfing," and is especially common in airports, bus terminals, and train stations. The code is then sold by the thief for a few dollars. The buyer abusing the code has no computer expertise, but calls his Mom in New York, Kingston or Caracas and runs up a huge bill with impunity. The losses from this primitive phreaking activity are far, far greater than the monetary losses caused by computer-intruding hackers. In the mid-to-late 1980s, until the introduction of sterner telco security measures, computerized code theft worked like a charm, and was virtually omnipresent throughout the digital underground, among phreaks and hackers alike. This was accomplished through programming one's computer to try random code numbers over the telephone until one of them worked. Simple programs to do this were widely available in the underground; a computer running all night was likely to come up with a dozen or so useful hits. This could be repeated week after week until one had a large library of stolen codes.
Nowadays, the computerized dialling of hundreds of numbers can be detected within hours and swiftly traced. If a stolen code is repeatedly abused, this too can be detected within a few hours. But for years in the 1980s, the publication of stolen codes was a kind of elementary etiquette for fledgling hackers. The simplest way to establish your bona-fides as a raider was to steal a code through repeated random dialling and offer it to the "community" for use. Codes could be both stolen, and used, simply and easily from the safety of one's own bedroom, with very little fear of detection or punishment.
Before computers and their phone-line modems entered American homes in gigantic numbers, phone phreaks had their own special telecommunications hardware gadget, the famous "blue box." This fraud device (now rendered increasingly useless by the digital evolution of the phone system) could trick switching systems into granting free access to long-distance lines. It did this by mimicking the system's own signal, a tone of 2600 hertz.
Steven Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple Computer, Inc., once dabbled in selling blue-boxes in college dorms in California. For many, in the early days of phreaking, blue-boxing was scarcely perceived as "theft," but rather as a fun (if sneaky) way to use excess phone capacity harmlessly. After all, the long-distance lines were just sitting there... Whom did it hurt, really? If you're not damaging the system, and you're not using up any tangible resource, and if nobody finds out what you did, then what real harm have you done? What exactly have you "stolen," anyway? If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, how much is the noise worth? Even now this remains a rather dicey question.
Blue-boxing was no joke to the phone companies, however. Indeed, when Ramparts magazine, a radical publication in California, printed the wiring schematics necessary to create a mute box in June 1972, the magazine was seized by police and Pacific Bell phonecompany officials. The mute box, a blue-box variant, allowed its user to receive long-distance calls free of charge to the caller. This device was closely described in a Ramparts article wryly titled "Regulating the Phone Company In Your Home." Publication of this article was held to be in violation of Californian State Penal Code section 502.7, which outlaws ownership of wire-fraud devices and the selling of "plans or instructions for any instrument, apparatus, or device intended to avoid telephone toll charges."
Issues of Ramparts were recalled or seized on the newsstands, and the resultant loss of income helped put the magazine out of business. This was an ominous precedent for free-expression issues, but the telco's crushing of a radical-fringe magazine passed without serious challenge at the time. Even in the freewheeling California 1970s, it was widely felt that there was something sacrosanct about what the phone company knew; that the telco had a legal and moral right to protect itself by shutting off the flow of such illicit information. Most telco information was so "specialized" that it would scarcely be understood by any honest member of the public. If not published, it would not be missed. To print such material did not seem part of the legitimate role of a free press.
In 1990 there would be a similar telco-inspired attack on the electronic phreak/hacking "magazine" Phrack. The Phrack legal case became a central issue in the Hacker Crackdown, and gave rise to great controversy. Phrack would also be shut down, for a time, at least, but this time both the telcos and their law enforcement allies would pay a much larger price for their actions. The Phrack case will be examined in detail, later.
Phone-phreaking as a social practice is still very much alive at this moment. Today, phone-phreaking is thriving much more vigorously than the better-known and worse-feared practice of "computer hacking." New forms of phreaking are spreading rapidly, following new vulnerabilities in sophisticated phone services.
Cellular phones are especially vulnerable; their chips can be re-programmed to present a false caller ID and avoid billing. Doing so also avoids police tapping, making cellular-phone abuse a favorite among drug-dealers. "Call-sell operations" using pirate cellular phones can, and have, been run right out of the backs of cars, which move from "cell" to "cell" in the local phone system, retailing stolen long-distance service, like some kind of demented electronic version of the neighborhood ice-cream truck.
Private branch-exchange phone systems in large corporations can be penetrated; phreaks dial-up a local company, enter its internal phone-system, hack it, then use the company's own PBX system to dial back out over the public network, causing the company to be stuck with the resulting long-distance bill. This technique is known as "diverting." "Diverting" can be very costly, especially because phreaks tend to travel in packs and never stop talking. Perhaps the worst by-product of this "PBX fraud" is that victim companies and telcos have sued one another over the financial responsibility for the stolen calls, thus enriching not only shabby phreaks but well-paid lawyers.
"Voice-mail systems" can also be abused; phreaks can seize their own sections of these sophisticated electronic answering machines, and use them for trading codes or knowledge of illegal techniques. Voice-mail abuse does not hurt the company directly, but finding supposedly empty slots in your company's answering machine all crammed with phreaks eagerly chattering and hey-duding one another in impenetrable jargon can cause sensations of almost mystical repulsion and dread.
Worse yet, phreaks have sometimes been known to react truculently to attempts to "clean up" the voice-mail system. Rather than humbly acquiescing to being thrown out of their playground, they may very well call up the company officials at work (or at home) and loudly demand free voice-mail addresses of their very own. Such bullying is taken very seriously by spooked victims.
Acts of phreak revenge against straight people are rare, but voice-mail systems are especially tempting and vulnerable, and an infestation of angry phreaks in one's voice-mail system is no joke. They can erase legitimate messages; or spy on private messages; or harass users with recorded taunts and obscenities. They've even been known to seize control of voice-mail security, and lock out legitimate users, or even shut down the system entirely.
Cellular phone-calls, cordless phones, and ship-to-shore telephony can all be monitored by various forms of radio; this kind of "passive monitoring" is spreading explosively today. Technically eavesdropping on other people's cordless and cellular phone-calls is the fastest growing area in phreaking today. This practice strongly appeals to the lust for power and conveys gratifying sensations of technical superiority over the eavesdropping victim. Monitoring is rife with all manner of tempting evil mischief. Simple prurient snooping is by far the most common activity. But credit-card numbers unwarily spoken over the phone can be recorded, stolen and used. And tapping people's phone-calls (whether through active telephone taps or passive radio monitors) does lend itself conveniently to activities like blackmail, industrial espionage, and political dirty tricks. It should be repeated that telecommunications fraud, the theft of phone service, causes vastly greater monetary losses than the practice of entering into computers by stealth. Hackers are mostly young suburban American white males, and exist in their hundreds - but "phreaks" come from both sexes and from many nationalities, ages and ethnic backgrounds, and are flourishing in the thousands.
Hackers of all kinds are absolutely soaked through with heroic anti-bureaucratic sentiment. Hackers long for recognition as a praiseworthy cultural archetype, the postmodern electronic equivalent of the cowboy and mountain man. Whether they deserve such a reputation is something for history to decide. But many hackers - including those outlaw hackers who are computer intruders, and whose activities are defined as criminal - actually attempt to live up to this techno-cowboy reputation. And given that electronics and telecommunications are still largely unexplored territories, there is simply no telling what hackers might uncover.
For some people, this freedom is the very breath of oxygen, the inventive spontaneity that makes life worth living and that flings open doors to marvellous possibility and individual empowerment. But for many people - and increasingly so - the hacker is an ominous figure, a smart aleck sociopath ready to burst out of his basement wilderness and savage other people's lives for his own anarchical convenience.
Any form of power without responsibility, without direct and formal checks and balances, is frightening to people - and reasonably so. It should be frankly admitted that hackers are frightening, and that the basis of this fear is not irrational. Fear of hackers goes well beyond the fear of merely criminal activity.
Subversion and manipulation of the phone system is an act with disturbing political overtones. In America, computers and telephones are potent symbols of organized authority and the technocratic business elite.
But there is an element in American culture that has always strongly rebelled against these symbols; rebelled against all large industrial computers and all phone companies. A certain anarchical tinge deep in the American soul delights in causing confusion and pain to all bureaucracies, including technological ones.
There is sometimes malice and vandalism in this attitude, but it is a deep and cherished part of the American national character. The outlaw, the rebel, the rugged individual, the pioneer, the sturdy Jeffersonian yeoman, the private citizen resisting interference in his pursuit of happiness - these are figures that all Americans recognize, and that many will strongly applaud and defend.
Many scrupulously law-abiding citizens today do cutting-edge work with electronics - work that has already had tremendous social influence and will have much more in years to come. In all truth, these talented, hardworking, law-abiding, mature, adult people are far more disturbing to the peace and order of the current status quo than any scofflaw group of romantic teenage punk kids. These law-abiding hackers have the power, ability, and willingness to influence other people's lives quite unpredictably. They have means, motive, and opportunity to meddle drastically with the American social order. When corralled into governments, universities, or large multinational companies, and forced to follow rulebooks and wear suits and ties, they at least have some conventional halters on their freedom of action. But when loosed alone, or in small groups, and fired by imagination and the entrepreneurial spirit, they can move mountains - causing landslides that will likely crash directly into your office and living room.
These people, as a class, instinctively recognize that a public, politicized attack on hackers will eventually spread to them - that the term "hacker," once demonized, might be used to knock their hands off the levers of power and choke them out of existence. There are hackers today who fiercely and publicly resist any besmirching of the noble title of hacker. Naturally and understandably, they deeply resent the attack on their values implicit in using the word "hacker" as a synonym for computer-criminal.
This book, sadly but in my opinion unavoidably, rather adds to the degradation of the term. It concerns itself mostly with "hacking" in its commonest latter-day definition, i.e., intruding into computer systems by stealth and without permission. The term "hacking" is used routinely today by almost all law enforcement officials with any professional interest in computer fraud and abuse. American police describe almost any crime committed with, by, through, or against a computer as hacking.
Most importantly, "hacker" is what computer intruders choose to call themselves. Nobody who "hacks" into systems willingly describes himself (rarely, herself) as a "computer intruder," "computer trespasser," "cracker," "wormer," "darkside hacker" or "high tech street gangster." Several other demeaning terms have been invented in the hope that the press and public will leave the original sense of the word alone. But few people actually use these terms. (I exempt the term "cyberpunk," which a few hackers and law enforcement people actually do use. The term "cyberpunk" is drawn from literary criticism and has some odd and unlikely resonances, but, like hacker, cyberpunk too has become a criminal pejorative today.)
In any case, breaking into computer systems was hardly alien to the original hacker tradition. The first tottering systems of the 1960s required fairly extensive internal surgery merely to function day-by-day. Their users "invaded" the deepest, most arcane recesses of their operating software almost as a matter of routine. "Computer security" in these early, primitive systems was at best an afterthought. What security there was, was entirely physical, for it was assumed that anyone allowed near this expensive, arcane hardware would be a fully qualified professional expert.
In a campus environment, though, this meant that grad students, teaching assistants, undergraduates, and eventually, all manner of dropouts and hangers-on ended up accessing and often running the works.
Universities, even modern universities, are not in the business of maintaining security over information. On the contrary, universities, as institutions, pre-date the "information economy" by many centuries and are not-for-profit cultural entities, whose reason for existence (purportedly) is to discover truth, codify it through techniques of scholarship, and then teach it. Universities are meant to pass the torch of civilization, not just download data into student skulls, and the values of the academic community are strongly at odds with those of all would-be information empires. Teachers at all levels, from kindergarten up, have proven to be shameless and persistent software and data pirates. Universities do not merely "leak information" but vigorously broadcast free thought.
This clash of values has been fraught with controversy. Many hackers of the 1960s remember their professional apprenticeship as a long guerilla war against the uptight mainframe-computer "information priesthood." These computer-hungry youngsters had to struggle hard for access to computing power, and many of them were not above certain, er, shortcuts. But, over the years, this practice freed computing from the sterile reserve of lab-coated technocrats and was largely responsible for the explosive growth of computing in general society - especially personal computing.
Access to technical power acted like catnip on certain of these youngsters. Most of the basic techniques of computer intrusion: password cracking, trapdoors, backdoors, trojan horses - were invented in college environments in the 1960s, in the early days of network computing. Some off-the-cuff experience at computer intrusion was to be in the informal resume of most "hackers" and many future industry giants. Outside of the tiny cult of computer enthusiasts, few people thought much about the implications of "breaking into" computers. This sort of activity had not yet been publicized, much less criminalized.
In the 1960s, definitions of "property" and "privacy" had not yet been extended to cyberspace. Computers were not yet indispensable to society. There were no vast databanks of vulnerable, proprietary information stored in computers, which might be accessed, copied without permission, erased, altered, or sabotaged. The stakes were low in the early days - but they grew every year, exponentially, as computers themselves grew.
By the 1990s, commercial and political pressures had become overwhelming, and they broke the social boundaries of the hacking subculture. Hacking had become too important to be left to the hackers. Society was now forced to tackle the intangible nature of cyberspace as property, cyberspace as privately-owned unreal-estate. In the new, severe, responsible, highstakes context of the "Information Society" of the 1990s, "hacking" was called into question.
What did it mean to break into a computer without permission and use its computational power, or look around inside its files without hurting anything? What were computer-intruding hackers, anyway - how should society, and the law, best define their actions? Were they just browsers, harmless intellectual explorers? Were they voyeurs, snoops, invaders of privacy? Should they be sternly treated as potential agents of espionage, or perhaps as industrial spies? Or were they best defined as trespassers, a very common teenage misdemeanor? Was hacking theft of service? (After all, intruders were getting someone else's computer to carry out their orders, without permission and without paying). Was hacking fraud? Maybe it was best described as impersonation. The commonest mode of computer intrusion was (and is) to swipe or snoop somebody else's password, and then enter the computer in the guise of another person - who is commonly stuck with the blame and the bills.
Perhaps a medical metaphor was better - hackers should be defined as "sick," as computer addicts unable to control their irresponsible, compulsive behavior.
But these weighty assessments meant little to the people who were actually being judged. From inside the underground world of hacking itself, all these perceptions seem quaint, wrongheaded, stupid, or meaningless. The most important self-perception of underground hackers - from the 1960s, right through to the present day - is that they are an elite. The day-to-day struggle in the underground is not over sociological definitions - who cares? - but for power, knowledge, and status among one's peers.
When you are a hacker, it is your own inner conviction of your elite status that enables you to break, or let us say "transcend," the rules. It is not that all rules go by the board. The rules habitually broken by hackers are unimportant rules - the rules of dopey greedhead telco bureaucrats and pig-ignorant government pests. Hackers have their own rules, which separate behavior which is cool and elite, from behavior which is rodentlike, stupid and losing. These "rules," however, are mostly unwritten and enforced by peer pressure and tribal feeling. Like all rules that depend on the unspoken conviction that everybody else is a good old boy, these rules are ripe for abuse. The mechanisms of hacker peer-pressure, "teletrials" and ostracism, are rarely used and rarely work. Back-stabbing slander, threats, and electronic harassment are also freely employed in down-and-dirty intrahacker feuds, but this rarely forces a rival out of the scene entirely. The only real solution for the problem of an utterly losing, treacherous and rodentlike hacker is to turn him in to the police. Unlike the Mafia or Medellin Cartel, the hacker elite cannot simply execute the bigmouths, creeps and troublemakers among their ranks, so they turn one another in with astonishing frequency.
There is no tradition of silence or omerta in the hacker underworld. Hackers can be shy, even reclusive, but when they do talk, hackers tend to brag, boast and strut. Almost everything hackers do is invisible; if they don't brag, boast, and strut about it, then nobody will ever know. If you don't have something to brag, boast, and strut about, then nobody in the underground will recognize you and favor you with vital cooperation and respect.
The way to win a solid reputation in the underground is by telling other hackers things that could only have been learned by exceptional cunning and stealth. Forbidden knowledge, therefore, is the basic currency of the digital underground, like seashells among Trobriand Islanders. Hackers hoard this knowledge, and dwell upon it obsessively, and refine it, and bargain with it, and talk and talk about it. Many hackers even suffer from a strange obsession to teach - to spread the ethos and the knowledge of the digital underground. They'll do this even when it gains them no particular advantage and presents a grave personal risk.
And when that risk catches up with them, they will go right on teaching and preaching - to a new audience this time, their interrogators from law enforcement. Almost every hacker arrested tells everything he knows - all about his friends, his mentors, his disciples - legends, threats, horror stories, dire rumors, gossip, hallucinations. This is, of course, convenient for law enforcement - except when law enforcement begins to believe hacker legendry.
Phone phreaks are unique among criminals in their willingness to call up law enforcement officials - in the office, at their homes - and give them an extended piece of their mind. It is hard not to interpret this as begging for arrest, and in fact it is an act of incredible foolhardiness. Police are naturally nettled by these acts of chutzpah and will go well out of their way to bust these flaunting idiots. But it can also be interpreted as a product of a world-view so elitist, so closed and hermetic, that electronic police are simply not perceived as "police," but rather as enemy phone phreaks who should be scolded into behaving "decently."
Hackers at their most grandiloquent perceive themselves as the elite pioneers of a new electronic world. Attempts to make them obey the democratically established laws of contemporary American society are seen as repression and persecution. After all, they argue, if Alexander Graham Bell had gone along with the rules of the Western Union telegraph company, there would have been no telephones. If Jobs and Wozniak had believed that IBM was the be-all and end-all, there would have been no personal computers. If Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had tried to "work within the system" there would have been no United States.
Not only do hackers privately believe this as an article of faith, but they have been known to write ardent manifestos about it. Here are some revealing excerpts from an especially vivid hacker manifesto: "The TechnoRevolution" by "Dr. Crash," which appeared in electronic form in Phrack Volume 1, Issue 6, Phile 3.
"To fully explain the true motives behind hacking, we must first take a quick look into the past. In the 1960s, a group of MIT students built the first modern computer system. This wild, rebellious group of young men were the first to bear the name `hackers.' The systems that they developed were intended to be used to solve world problems and to benefit all of mankind.
"As we can see, this has not been the case. The computer system has been solely in the hands of big businesses and the government. The wonderful device meant to enrich life has become a weapon which dehumanizes people. To the government and large businesses, people are no more than disk space, and the government doesn't use computers to arrange aid for the poor, but to control nuclear death weapons. The average American can only have access to a small microcomputer which is worth only a fraction of what they pay for it. The businesses keep the true state-of-the-art equipment away from the people behind a steel wall of incredibly high prices and bureaucracy. It is because of this state of affairs that hacking was born.(...)
"Of course, the government doesn't want the monopoly of technology broken, so they have outlawed hacking and arrest anyone who is caught.(...) The phone company is another example of technology abused and kept from people with high prices.(...)
"Hackers often find that their existing equipment, due to the monopoly tactics of computer companies, is inefficient for their purposes. Due to the exorbitantly high prices, it is impossible to legally purchase the necessary equipment. This need has given still another segment of the fight: Credit Carding. Carding is a way of obtaining the necessary goods without paying for them. It is again due to the companies' stupidity that Carding is so easy, and shows that the world's businesses are in the hands of those with considerably less technical know-how than we, the hackers. (...) "Hacking must continue. We must train newcomers to the art of hacking.(...) And whatever you do, continue the fight. Whether you know it or not, if you are a hacker, you are a revolutionary. Don't worry, you're on the right side."
The defense of "carding" is rare. Most hackers regard credit-card theft as "poison" to the underground, a sleazy and immoral effort that, worse yet, is hard to get away with. Nevertheless, manifestos advocating credit card theft, the deliberate crashing of computer systems, and even acts of violent physical destruction such as vandalism and arson do exist in the underground. These boasts and threats are taken quite seriously by the police. And not every hacker is an abstract, Platonic computer nerd. Some few are quite experienced at picking locks, robbing phone-trucks, and breaking and entering buildings.
Hackers vary in their degree of hatred for authority and the violence of their rhetoric. But, at a bottom line, they are scofflaws. They don't regard the current rules of electronic behavior as respectable efforts to preserve law and order and protect public safety. They regard these laws as immoral efforts by soulless corporations to protect their profit margins and to crush dissidents. "Stupid" people, including police, businessmen, politicians, and journalists, simply have no right to judge the actions of those possessed of genius, techno-revolutionary intentions, and technical expertise.
Having grown up in the 1970s and 1980s, the young Bohemians of the digital underground regard straight society as awash in plutocratic corruption, where everyone from the President down is for sale and whoever has the gold makes the rules.
Interestingly, there's a funhouse-mirror image of this attitude on the other side of the conflict. The police are also one of the most markedly anti-materialistic groups in American society, motivated not by mere money but by ideals of service, justice, esprit-de-corps, and, of course, their own brand of specialized knowledge and power. Remarkably, the propaganda war between cops and hackers has always involved angry allegations that the other side is trying to make a sleazy buck. Hackers consistently sneer that anti-phreak prosecutors are angling for cushy jobs as telco lawyers and that computer crime police are aiming to cash in later as well-paid computer-security consultants in the private sector.
For their part, police publicly conflate all hacking crimes with robbing payphones with crowbars. Allegations of "monetary losses" from computer intrusion are notoriously inflated. The act of illicitly copying a document from a computer is morally equated with directly robbing a company of, say, half a million dollars. The teenage computer intruder in possession of this "proprietary" document has certainly not sold it for such a sum, would likely have little idea how to sell it at all, and quite probably doesn't even understand what he has. He has not made a cent in profit from his felony but is still morally equated with a thief who has robbed the church poorbox and lit out for Brazil.
Police want to believe that all hackers are thieves. It is a tortuous and almost unbearable act for the American justice system to put people in jail because they want to learn things which are forbidden for them to know. In an American context, almost any pretext for punishment is better than jailing people to protect certain restricted kinds of information. Nevertheless, policing information is part and parcel of the struggle against hackers.
This dilemma is well exemplified by the remarkable activities of "Emmanuel Goldstein," editor and publisher of a print magazine known as 2600: The Hacker Quarterly. Goldstein was an English major at Long Island's State University of New York in the '70s, when he became involved with the local college radio station. His growing interest in electronics caused him to drift into Yippie TAP circles and thus into the digital underground, where he became a self-described techno-rat. His magazine publishes techniques of computer intrusion and telephone "exploration" as well as gloating exposes of telco misdeeds and governmental failings.
Goldstein lives quietly and very privately in a large, crumbling Victorian mansion in Setauket, New York. The seaside house is decorated with telco decals, chunks of driftwood, and the basic bric-a-brac of a hippie crash-pad. He is unmarried, mildly unkempt, and survives mostly on TV dinners and turkey-stuffing eaten straight out of the bag. Goldstein is a man of considerable charm and fluency, with a brief, disarming smile and the kind of pitiless, stubborn, thoroughly recidivist integrity that America's electronic police find genuinely alarming.
Goldstein took his nom-de-plume, or "handle," from a character in Orwell's 1984, which may be taken, correctly, as a symptom of the gravity of his sociopolitical worldview. He is not himself a practicing computer intruder, though he vigorously abets these actions, especially when they are pursued against large corporations or governmental agencies. Nor is he a thief, for he loudly scorns mere theft of phone service, in favor of `exploring and manipulating the system.' He is probably best described and understood as a dissident.
Weirdly, Goldstein is living in modern America under conditions very similar to those of former East European intellectual dissidents. In other words, he flagrantly espouses a value-system that is deeply and irrevocably opposed to the system of those in power and the police. The values in 2600 are generally expressed in terms that are ironic, sarcastic, paradoxical, or just downright confused. But there's no mistaking their radically anti-authoritarian tenor. 2600 holds that technical power and specialized knowledge, of any kind obtainable, belong by right in the hands of those individuals brave and bold enough to discover them - by whatever means necessary. Devices, laws, or systems that forbid access, and the free spread of knowledge, are provocations that any free and self-respecting hacker should relentlessly attack. The "privacy" of governments, corporations and other soulless technocratic organizations should never be protected at the expense of the liberty and free initiative of the individual techno-rat.
However, in our contemporary workaday world, both governments and corporations are very anxious indeed to police information which is secret, proprietary, restricted, confidential, copyrighted, patented, hazardous, illegal, unethical, embarrassing, or otherwise sensitive. This makes Goldstein persona non grata, and his philosophy a threat.
Very little about the conditions of Goldstein's daily life would astonish, say, Vaclav Havel. (We may note in passing that President Havel once had his word-processor confiscated by the Czechoslovak police.) Goldstein lives by samizdat, acting semi-openly as a data-center for the underground, while challenging the powers-that-be to abide by their own stated rules: freedom of speech and the First Amendment.
Goldstein thoroughly looks and acts the part of techno-rat, with shoulder-length ringlets and a piratical black fisherman's-cap set at a rakish angle. He often shows up like Banquo's ghost at meetings of computer professionals, where he listens quietly, half-smiling and taking thorough notes.
Computer professionals generally meet publicly, and find it very difficult to rid themselves of Goldstein and his ilk without extralegal and unconstitutional actions. Sympathizers, many of them quite respectable people with responsible jobs, admire Goldstein's attitude and surreptitiously pass him information. An unknown but presumably large proportion of Goldstein's 2,000-plus readership are telco security personnel and police, who are forced to subscribe to 2600 to stay abreast of new developments in hacking. They thus find themselves paying this guy's rent while grinding their teeth in anguish, a situation that would have delighted Abbie Hoffman (one of Goldstein's few idols).
Goldstein is probably the best-known public representative of the hacker underground today, and certainly the best-hated. Police regard him as a Fagin, a corrupter of youth, and speak of him with untempered loathing. He is quite an accomplished gadfly.
After the Martin Luther King Day Crash of 1990, Goldstein, for instance, adeptly rubbed salt into the wound in the pages of 2600. "Yeah, it was fun for the phone phreaks as we watched the network crumble," he admitted cheerfully. "But it was also an ominous sign of what's to come... Some AT&T people, aided by well-meaning but ignorant media, were spreading the notion that many companies had the same software and therefore could face the same problem someday. Wrong. This was entirely an AT&T software deficiency. Of course, other companies could face entirely different software problems. But then, so too could AT&T."
After a technical discussion of the system's failings, the Long Island techno-rat went on to offer thoughtful criticism to the gigantic multinational's hundreds of professionally qualified engineers. "What we don't know is how a major force in communications like AT&T could be so sloppy. What happened to backups? Sure, computer systems go down all the time, but people making phone calls are not the same as people logging on to computers. We must make that distinction. It's not acceptable for the phone system or any other essential service to `go down.' If we continue to trust technology without understanding it, we can look forward to many variations on this theme.
"AT&T owes it to its customers to be prepared to instantly switch to another network if something strange and unpredictable starts occurring. The news here isn't so much the failure of a computer program, but the failure of AT&T's entire structure."
The very idea of this... this person... offering "advice" about "AT&T's entire structure" is more than some people can easily bear. How dare this near-criminal dictate what is or isn't "acceptable" behavior from AT&T? Especially when he's publishing, in the very same issue, detailed schematic diagrams for creating various switching-network signalling tones unavailable to the public.
"See what happens when you drop a `silver box' tone or two down your local exchange or through different long-distance service carriers," advises 2600 contributor "Mr. Upsetter" in "How To Build a Signal Box." "If you experiment systematically and keep good records, you will surely discover something interesting."
This is, of course, the scientific method, generally regarded as a praiseworthy activity and one of the flowers of modern civilization. One can indeed learn a great deal with this sort of structured intellectual activity. Telco employees regard this mode of "exploration" as akin to flinging sticks of dynamite into their pond to see what lives on the bottom.
2600has been published consistently since 1984. It has also run a bulletin board computer system, printed 2600 T-shirts, taken fax calls... The Spring 1991 issue has an interesting announcement on page 45: "We just discovered an extra set of wires attached to our fax line and heading up the pole. (They've since been clipped.) Your faxes to us and to anyone else could be monitored."
In the worldview of 2600, the tiny band of technorat brothers (rarely, sisters) are a beseiged vanguard of the truly free and honest. The rest of the world is a maelstrom of corporate crime and high-level governmental corruption, occasionally tempered with well-meaning ignorance. To read a few issues in a row is to enter a nightmare akin to Solzhenitsyn's, somewhat tempered by the fact that 2600 is often extremely funny.
Goldstein did not become a target of the Hacker Crackdown, though he protested loudly, eloquently, and publicly about it, and it added considerably to his fame. It was not that he is not regarded as dangerous, because he is so regarded. Goldstein has had brushes with the law in the past: in 1985, a 2600 bulletin board computer was seized by the FBI, and some software on it was formally declared "a burglary tool in the form of a computer program." But Goldstein escaped direct repression in 1990, because his magazine is printed on paper, and recognized as subject to Constitutional freedom of the press protection. As was seen in the Ramparts case, this is far from an absolute guarantee. Still, as a practical matter, shutting down 2600 by court-order would create so much legal hassle that it is simply unfeasible, at least for the present. Throughout 1990, both Goldstein and his magazine were peevishly thriving.
Instead, the Crackdown of 1990 would concern itself with the computerized version of forbidden data. The crackdown itself, first and foremost, was about bulletin board systems. Bulletin Board Systems, most often known by the ugly and un-pluralizable acronym "BBS," are the life-blood of the digital underground. Boards were also central to law enforcement's tactics and strategy in the Hacker Crackdown.
A "bulletin board system" can be formally defined as a computer which serves as an information and messagepassing center for users dialing-up over the phone-lines through the use of modems. A "modem," or modulatordemodulator, is a device which translates the digital impulses of computers into audible analog telephone signals, and vice versa. Modems connect computers to phones and thus to each other.
Large-scale mainframe computers have been connected since the 1960s, but personal computers, run by individuals out of their homes, were first networked in the late 1970s. The "board" created by Ward Christensen and Randy Suess in February 1978, in Chicago, Illinois, is generally regarded as the first personal-computer bulletin board system worthy of the name. Boards run on many different machines, employing many different kinds of software. Early boards were crude and buggy, and their managers, known as "system operators" or "sysops," were hard-working technical experts who wrote their own software. But like most everything else in the world of electronics, boards became faster, cheaper, better-designed, and generally far more sophisticated throughout the 1980s. They also moved swiftly out of the hands of pioneers and into those of the general public. By 1985 there were something in the neighborhood of 4,000 boards in America. By 1990 it was calculated, vaguely, that there were about 30,000 boards in the US, with uncounted thousands overseas.
Computer bulletin boards are unregulated enterprises. Running a board is a rough-and-ready, catch-as-catch-can proposition. Basically, anybody with a computer, modem, software and a phone-line can start a board. With second-hand equipment and public-domain free software, the price of a board might be quite small - less than it would take to publish a magazine or even a decent pamphlet. Entrepreneurs eagerly sell bulletin-board software, and will coach nontechnical amateur sysops in its use.
Boards are not "presses." They are not magazines, or libraries, or phones, or CB radios, or traditional cork bulletin boards down at the local laundry, though they have some passing resemblance to those earlier media. Boards are a new medium - they may even be a large number of new media.
Consider these unique characteristics: boards are cheap, yet they can have a national, even global reach. Boards can be contacted from anywhere in the global telephone network, at no cost to the person running the board - the caller pays the phone bill, and if the caller is local, the call is free. Boards do not involve an editorial elite addressing a mass audience. The "sysop" of a board is not an exclusive publisher or writer - he is managing an electronic salon, where individuals can address the general public, play the part of the general public, and also exchange private mail with other individuals. And the "conversation" on boards, though fluid, rapid, and highly interactive, is not spoken, but written. It is also relatively anonymous, sometimes completely so.
And because boards are cheap and ubiquitous, regulations and licensing requirements would likely be practically unenforceable. It would almost be easier to "regulate," "inspect" and "license" the content of private mail - probably more so, since the mail system is operated by the federal government. Boards are run by individuals, independently, entirely at their own whim.
For the sysop, the cost of operation is not the primary limiting factor. Once the investment in a computer and modem has been made, the only steady cost is the charge for maintaining a phone line (or several phone lines). The primary limits for sysops are time and energy. Boards require upkeep. New users are generally "validated" - they must be issued individual passwords, and called at home by voice-phone, so that their identity can be verified. Obnoxious users, who exist in plenty, must be chided or purged. Proliferating messages must be deleted when they grow old, so that the capacity of the system is not overwhelmed. And software programs (if such things are kept on the board) must be examined for possible computer viruses. If there is a financial charge to use the board (increasingly common, especially in larger and fancier systems) then accounts must be kept, and users must be billed. And if the board crashes - a very common occurrence - then repairs must be made.
Boards can be distinguished by the amount of effort spent in regulating them. First, we have the completely open board, whose sysop is off chugging brews and watching re-runs while his users generally degenerate over time into peevish anarchy and eventual silence. Second comes the supervised board, where the sysop breaks in every once in a while to tidy up, calm brawls, issue announcements, and rid the community of dolts and troublemakers. Third is the heavily supervised board, which sternly urges adult and responsible behavior and swiftly edits any message considered offensive, impertinent, illegal or irrelevant. And last comes the completely edited "electronic publication," which is presented to a silent audience which is not allowed to respond directly in any way.
Boards can also be grouped by their degree of anonymity. There is the completely anonymous board, where everyone uses pseudonyms - "handles" - and even the sysop is unaware of the user's true identity. The sysop himself is likely pseudonymous on a board of this type. Second, and rather more common, is the board where the sysop knows (or thinks he knows) the true names and addresses of all users, but the users don't know one another's names and may not know his. Third is the board where everyone has to use real names, and roleplaying and pseudonymous posturing are forbidden.
Boards can be grouped by their immediacy. "Chatlines" are boards linking several users together over several different phone-lines simultaneously, so that people exchange messages at the very moment that they type. (Many large boards feature "chat" capabilities along with other services.) Less immediate boards, perhaps with a single phoneline, store messages serially, one at a time. And some boards are only open for business in daylight hours or on weekends, which greatly slows response. A network of boards, such as "FidoNet," can carry electronic mail from board to board, continent to continent, across huge distances - but at a relative snail's pace, so that a message can take several days to reach its target audience and elicit a reply.
Boards can be grouped by their degree of community. Some boards emphasize the exchange of private, person-to-person electronic mail. Others emphasize public postings and may even purge people who "lurk," merely reading posts but refusing to openly participate. Some boards are intimate and neighborly. Others are frosty and highly technical. Some are little more than storage dumps for software, where users "download" and "upload" programs, but interact among themselves little if at all.
Boards can be grouped by their ease of access. Some boards are entirely public. Others are private and restricted only to personal friends of the sysop. Some boards divide users by status. On these boards, some users, especially beginners, strangers or children, will be restricted to general topics, and perhaps forbidden to post. Favored users, though, are granted the ability to post as they please, and to stay "on-line" as long as they like, even to the disadvantage of other people trying to call in. High-status users can be given access to hidden areas in the board, such as off-color topics, private discussions, and/or valuable software. Favored users may even become "remote sysops" with the power to take remote control of the board through their own home computers. Quite often "remote sysops" end up doing all the work and taking formal control of the enterprise, despite the fact that it's physically located in someone else's house. Sometimes several "co-sysops" share power.
And boards can also be grouped by size. Massive, nationwide commercial networks, such as CompuServe, Delphi, GEnie and Prodigy, are run on mainframe computers and are generally not considered "boards," though they share many of their characteristics, such as electronic mail, discussion topics, libraries of software, and persistent and growing problems with civil-liberties issues. Some private boards have as many as thirty phone-lines and quite sophisticated hardware. And then there are tiny boards.
Boards vary in popularity. Some boards are huge and crowded, where users must claw their way in against a constant busy-signal. Others are huge and empty - there are few things sadder than a formerly flourishing board where no one posts any longer, and the dead conversations of vanished users lie about gathering digital dust. Some boards are tiny and intimate, their telephone numbers intentionally kept confidential so that only a small number can log on.
And some boards are underground.
Boards can be mysterious entities. The activities of their users can be hard to differentiate from conspiracy. Sometimes they are conspiracies. Boards have harbored, or have been accused of harboring, all manner of fringe groups, and have abetted, or been accused of abetting, every manner of frowned-upon, sleazy, radical, and criminal activity. There are Satanist boards. Nazi boards. Pornographic boards. Pedophile boards. Drugdealing boards. Anarchist boards. Communist boards. Gay and Lesbian boards (these exist in great profusion, many of them quite lively with well-established histories). Religious cult boards. Evangelical boards. Witchcraft boards, hippie boards, punk boards, skateboarder boards. Boards for UFO believers. There may well be boards for serial killers, airline terrorists and professional assassins. There is simply no way to tell. Boards spring up, flourish, and disappear in large numbers, in most every corner of the developed world. Even apparently innocuous public boards can, and sometimes do, harbor secret areas known only to a few. And even on the vast, public, commercial services, private mail is very private - and quite possibly criminal.
Boards cover most every topic imaginable and some that are hard to imagine. They cover a vast spectrum of social activity. However, all board users do have something in common: their possession of computers and phones. Naturally, computers and phones are primary topics of conversation on almost every board.
And hackers and phone phreaks, those utter devotees of computers and phones, live by boards. They swarm by boards. They are bred by boards. By the late 1980s, phone-phreak groups and hacker groups, united by boards, had proliferated fantastically.
As evidence, here is a list of hacker groups compiled by the editors of Phrack on August 8, 1988.
The Administration. Advanced Telecommunications, Inc. ALIAS. American Tone Travelers. Anarchy Inc. Apple Mafia. The Association. Atlantic Pirates Guild.
Bad Ass Mother Fuckers. Bellcore. Bell Shock Force. Black Bag.
Camorra. C&M Productions. Catholics Anonymous. Chaos Computer Club. Chief Executive Officers. Circle Of Death. Circle Of Deneb. Club X. Coalition of Hi-Tech Pirates. Coast-To-Coast. Corrupt Computing. Cult Of The Dead Cow. Custom Retaliations.
Damage Inc. D&B Communications. The Dange Gang. Dec Hunters. Digital Gang. DPAK.
Eastern Alliance. The Elite Hackers Guild. Elite Phreakers and Hackers Club. The Elite Society Of America. EPG. Executives Of Crime. Extasyy Elite.
Fargo 4A. Farmers Of Doom. The Federation. Feds R Us. First Class. Five O. Five Star. Force Hackers. The 414s.
Hack-A-Trip. Hackers Of America. High Mountain Hackers. High Society. The Hitchhikers.
IBM Syndicate. The Ice Pirates. Imperial Warlords. Inner Circle. Inner Circle II. Insanity Inc. International Computer Underground Bandits.
Justice League of America. Kaos Inc. Knights Of Shadow. Knights Of The Round Table.
League Of Adepts. Legion Of Doom. Legion Of Hackers. Lords Of Chaos. Lunatic Labs, Unlimited.
Master Hackers. MAD! The Marauders. MD/PhD. Metal Communications, Inc. MetalliBashers, Inc. MBI. Metro Communications. Midwest Pirates Guild.
NASA Elite. The NATO Association. Neon Knights. Nihilist Order. Order Of The Rose. OSS.
Pacific Pirates Guild. Phantom Access Associates. PHido PHreaks. The Phirm. Phlash. PhoneLine Phantoms. Phone Phreakers Of America. Phortune 500. Phreak Hack Delinquents. Phreak Hack Destroyers. Phreakers, Hackers, And Laundromat Employees Gang (PHALSE Gang). Phreaks Against Geeks. Phreaks Against Phreaks Against Geeks. Phreaks and Hackers of America. Phreaks Anonymous World Wide. Project Genesis. The Punk Mafia. The Racketeers. Red Dawn Text Files. Roscoe Gang.
SABRE. Secret Circle of Pirates. Secret Service. 707 Club. Shadow Brotherhood. Sharp Inc. 65C02 Elite. Spectral Force. Star League. Stowaways. Strata-Crackers.
Team Hackers '86. Team Hackers '87. TeleComputist Newsletter Staff. Tribunal Of Knowledge. Triple Entente. Turn Over And Die Syndrome (TOADS). 300 Club. 1200 Club. 2300 Club. 2600 Club. 2601 Club. 2AF. The United Soft WareZ Force. United Technical Underground.
Ware Brigade. The Warelords. WASP.
Contemplating this list is an impressive, almost humbling business. As a cultural artifact, the thing approaches poetry.
Underground groups - subcultures - can be distinguished from independent cultures by their habit of referring constantly to the parent society. Undergrounds by their nature constantly must maintain a membrane of differentiation. Funny/distinctive clothes and hair, specialized jargon, specialized ghettoized areas in cities, different hours of rising, working, sleeping... The digital underground, which specializes in information, relies very heavily on language to distinguish itself. As can be seen from this list, they make heavy use of parody and mockery. It's revealing to see who they choose to mock.
First, large corporations. We have the Phortune 500, The Chief Executive Officers, Bellcore, IBM Syndicate, SABRE (a computerized reservation service maintained by airlines). The common use of "Inc." is telling - none of these groups are actual corporations, but take clear delight in mimicking them.
Second, governments and police. NASA Elite, NATO Association. "Feds R Us" and "Secret Service" are fine bits of fleering boldness. OSS - the Office of Strategic Services was the forerunner of the CIA.
Third, criminals. Using stigmatizing pejoratives as a perverse badge of honor is a time-honored tactic for subcultures: punks, gangs, delinquents, mafias, pirates, bandits, racketeers.
Specialized orthography, especially the use of "ph" for "f" and "z" for the plural "s," are instant recognition symbols. So is the use of the numeral "0" for the letter "O" - computer-software orthography generally features a slash through the zero, making the distinction obvious.
Some terms are poetically descriptive of computer intrusion: the Stowaways, the Hitchhikers, the PhoneLine Phantoms, Coast-to-Coast. Others are simple bravado and vainglorious puffery. (Note the insistent use of the terms "elite" and "master.") Some terms are blasphemous, some obscene, others merely cryptic - anything to puzzle, offend, confuse, and keep the straights at bay.
Many hacker groups further re-encrypt their names by the use of acronyms: United Technical Underground becomes UTU, Farmers of Doom become FoD, the United SoftWareZ Force becomes, at its own insistence, "TuSwF," and woe to the ignorant rodent who capitalizes the wrong letters.
It should be further recognized that the members of these groups are themselves pseudonymous. If you did, in fact, run across the "PhoneLine Phantoms," you would find them to consist of "Carrier Culprit," "The Executioner," "Black Majik," "Egyptian Lover," "Solid State," and "Mr Icom." "Carrier Culprit" will likely be referred to by his friends as "CC," as in, "I got these dialups from CC of PLP."
It's quite possible that this entire list refers to as few as a thousand people. It is not a complete list of underground groups - there has never been such a list, and there never will be. Groups rise, flourish, decline, share membership, maintain a cloud of wannabes and casual hangers-on. People pass in and out, are ostracized, get bored, are busted by police, or are cornered by telco security and presented with huge bills. Many "underground groups" are software pirates, "warez d00dz," who might break copy protection and pirate programs, but likely wouldn't dare to intrude on a computer-system. It is hard to estimate the true population of the digital underground. There is constant turnover. Most hackers start young, come and go, then drop out at age 22 - the age of college graduation. And a large majority of "hackers" access pirate boards, adopt a handle, swipe software and perhaps abuse a phone-code or two, while never actually joining the elite.
Some professional informants, who make it their business to retail knowledge of the underground to paymasters in private corporate security, have estimated the hacker population at as high as fifty thousand. This is likely highly inflated, unless one counts every single teenage software pirate and petty phone-booth thief. My best guess is about 5,000 people. Of these, I would guess that as few as a hundred are truly "elite" - active computer intruders, skilled enough to penetrate sophisticated systems and truly to worry corporate security and law enforcement.
Another interesting speculation is whether this group is growing or not. Young teenage hackers are often convinced that hackers exist in vast swarms and will soon dominate the cybernetic universe. Older and wiser veterans, perhaps as wizened as 24 or 25 years old, are convinced that the glory days are long gone, that the cops have the underground's number now, and that kids these days are dirt-stupid and just want to play Nintendo.
My own assessment is that computer intrusion, as a non-profit act of intellectual exploration and mastery, is in slow decline, at least in the United States; but that electronic fraud, especially telecommunication crime, is growing by leaps and bounds.
One might find a useful parallel to the digital underground in the drug underground. There was a time, now much-obscured by historical revisionism, when Bohemians freely shared joints at concerts, and hip, smallscale marijuana dealers might turn people on just for the sake of enjoying a long stoned conversation about the Doors and Allen Ginsberg. Now drugs are increasingly verboten, except in a high-stakes, highly-criminal world of highly addictive drugs. Over years of disenchantment and police harassment, a vaguely ideological, free-wheeling drug underground has relinquished the business of drugdealing to a far more savage criminal hard-core. This is not a pleasant prospect to contemplate, but the analogy is fairly compelling.
What does an underground board look like? What distinguishes it from a standard board? It isn't necessarily the conversation - hackers often talk about common board topics, such as hardware, software, sex, science fiction, current events, politics, movies, personal gossip. Underground boards can best be distinguished by their files, or "philes," pre-composed texts which teach the techniques and ethos of the underground. These are prized reservoirs of forbidden knowledge. Some are anonymous, but most proudly bear the handle of the "hacker" who has created them, and his group affiliation, if he has one. Here is a partial table-of-contents of philes from an underground board, somewhere in the heart of middle America, circa 1991. The descriptions are mostly self-explanatory.
re> 5406 06-11-91 Hacking Bank America BANKAMER.ZIP 4481 06-11-91 Chilton Hacking CHHACK.ZIP 4118 06-11-91 Hacking Citibank CITIBANK.ZIP 3241 06-11-91 Hacking Mtc Credit Company CREDIMTC.ZIP 5159 06-11-91 Hackers Digest DIGEST.ZIP 14031 06-11-91 How To Hack HACK.ZIP 5073 06-11-91 Basics Of Hacking HACKBAS.ZIP 42774 06-11-91 Hackers Dictionary HACKDICT.ZIP 57938 06-11-91 Hacker Info HACKER.ZIP 3148 06-11-91 Hackers Manual HACKERME.ZIP 4814 06-11-91 Hackers Handbook HACKHAND.ZIP 48290 06-11-91 Hackers Thesis HACKTHES.ZIP 4696 06-11-91 Hacking Vms Systems HACKVMS.ZIP 3830 06-11-91 Hacking Macdonalds (Home Of The Archs) MCDON.ZIP 15525 06-11-91 Phortune 500 Guide To Unix P500UNIX.ZIP 8411 06-11-91 Radio Hacking RADHACK.ZIP 4096 12-25-89 Suggestions For Trashing TAOTRASH.DOC 5063 06-11-91 Technical Hacking TECHHACK.ZIP
The files above are do-it-yourself manuals about computer intrusion. The above is only a small section of a much larger library of hacking and phreaking techniques and history. We now move into a different and perhaps surprising area.
+------------+ | Anarchy | +------------+ 3641 06-11-91 Anarchy Files ANARC.ZIP 63703 06-11-91 Anarchist Book ANARCHST.ZIP 2076 06-11-91 Anarchy At Home ANARCHY.ZIP 6982 06-11-91 Anarchy No 3 ANARCHY3.ZIP 2361 06-11-91 Anarchy Toys ANARCTOY.ZIP 2877 06-11-91 Anti-modem Weapons ANTIMODM.ZIP 4494 06-11-91 How To Make An Atom Bomb ATOM.ZIP 3982 06-11-91 Barbiturate Formula BARBITUA.ZIP 2810 06-11-91 Black Powder Formulas BLCKPWDR.ZIP 3765 06-11-91 How To Make Bombs BOMB.ZIP 2036 06-11-91 Things That Go Boom BOOM.ZIP 1926 06-11-91 Chlorine Bomb CHLORINE.ZIP 1500 06-11-91 Anarchy Cook Book COOKBOOK.ZIP 3947 06-11-91 Destroy Stuff DESTROY.ZIP 2576 06-11-91 Dust Bomb DUSTBOMB.ZIP 3230 06-11-91 Electronic Terror ELECTERR.ZIP 2598 06-11-91 Explosives 1 EXPLOS1.ZIP 18051 06-11-91 More Explosives EXPLOSIV.ZIP 4521 06-11-91 Ez-stealing EZSTEAL.ZIP 2240 06-11-91 Flame Thrower FLAME.ZIP 2533 06-11-91 Flashlight Bomb FLASHLT.ZIP 2906 06-11-91 How To Make An Fm Bug FMBUG.ZIP 2139 06-11-91 Home Explosives OMEEXPL.ZIP 3332 06-11-91 How To Break In HOW2BRK.ZIP 2990 06-11-91 Letter Bomb LETTER.ZIP 2199 06-11-91 How To Pick Locks LOCK.ZIP 3991 06-11-91 Briefcase Locks MRSHIN.ZIP 3563 06-11-91 Napalm At Home NAPALM.ZIP 3158 06-11-91 Fun With Nitro NITRO.ZIP 2962 06-11-91 Paramilitary Info PARAMIL.ZIP 3398 06-11-91 Picking Locks PICKING.ZIP 2137 06-11-91 Pipe Bomb PIPEBOMB.ZIP 3987 06-11-91 Formulas With Potassium POTASS.ZIP 11074 08-03-90 More Pranks To Pull On Idiots! PRANK.TXT 4447 06-11-91 Revenge Tactics REVENGE.ZIP 2590 06-11-91 Rockets For Fun ROCKET.ZIP 3385 06-11-91 How To Smuggle SMUGGLE.ZIP
Holy Cow! The damned thing is full of stuff about bombs!
What are we to make of this?
First, it should be acknowledged that spreading knowledge about demolitions to teenagers is a highly and deliberately antisocial act.
It is not, however, illegal.
Second, it should be recognized that most of these philes were in fact written by teenagers. Most adult American males who can remember their teenage years will recognize that the notion of building a flamethrower in your garage is an incredibly neat-o idea. Actually building a flamethrower in your garage, however, is fraught with discouraging difficulty. Stuffing gunpowder into a booby-trapped flashlight, so as to blow the arm off your high-school vice-principal, can be a thing of dark beauty to contemplate. Actually committing assault by explosives will earn you the sustained attention of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Some people, however, will actually try these plans. A determinedly murderous American teenager can probably buy or steal a handgun far more easily than he can brew fake "napalm" in the kitchen sink. Nevertheless, if temptation is spread before people a certain number will succumb, and a small minority will actually attempt these stunts. A large minority of that small minority will either fail or, quite likely, maim themselves, since these "philes" have not been checked for accuracy, are not the product of professional experience, and are often highly fanciful. But the gloating menace of these philes is not to be entirely dismissed.
Hackers may not be "serious" about bombing; if they were, we would hear far more about exploding flashlights, homemade bazookas, and gym teachers poisoned by chlorine and potassium. However, hackers are very serious about forbidden knowledge. They are possessed not merely by curiosity, but by a positive lust to know. The desire to know what others don't is scarcely new. But the intensity of this desire, as manifested by these young technophilic denizens of the Information Age, may in fact be new, and may represent some basic shift in social values - a harbinger of what the world may come to, as society lays more and more value on the possession, assimilation and retailing of information as a basic commodity of daily life.
There have always been young men with obsessive interests in these topics. Never before, however, have they been able to network so extensively and easily, and to propagandize their interests with impunity to random passers-by. High-school teachers will recognize that there's always one in a crowd, but when the one in a crowd escapes control by jumping into the phone-lines, and becomes a hundred such kids all together on a board, then trouble is brewing visibly. The urge of authority to do something, even something drastic, is hard to resist. And in 1990, authority did something. In fact authority did a great deal.
The world of boards suddenly opens up. Computer games can be quite expensive, real budget-breakers for a kid, but pirated games, stripped of copy protection, are cheap or free. They are also illegal, but it is very rare, almost unheard of, for a small-scale software pirate to be prosecuted. Once "cracked" of its copy protection, the program, being digital data, becomes infinitely reproducible. Even the instructions to the game, any manuals that accompany it, can be reproduced as text files, or photocopied from legitimate sets. Other users on boards can give many useful hints in game-playing tactics. And a youngster with an infinite supply of free computer games can certainly cut quite a swath among his modemless friends. And boards are pseudonymous. No one need know that you're fourteen years old - with a little practice at subterfuge, you can talk to adults about adult things, and be accepted and taken seriously! You can even pretend to be a girl, or an old man, or anybody you can imagine. If you find this kind of deception gratifying, there is ample opportunity to hone your ability on boards. But local boards can grow stale. And almost every board maintains a list of phone-numbers to other boards, some in distant, tempting, exotic locales. Who knows what they're up to, in Oregon or Alaska or Florida or California? It's very easy to find out - just order the modem to call through its software - nothing to this, just typing on a keyboard, the same thing you would do for most any computer game. The machine reacts swiftly and in a few seconds you are talking to a bunch of interesting people on another seaboard.
And yet the bills for this trivial action can be staggering! Just by going tippety-tap with your fingers, you may have saddled your parents with four hundred bucks in long-distance charges, and gotten chewed out but good. That hardly seems fair.
How horrifying to have made friends in another state and to be deprived of their company - and their software - just because telephone companies demand absurd amounts of money! How painful, to be restricted to boards in one's own area code - what the heck is an "area code" anyway, and what makes it so special? A few grumbles, complaints, and innocent questions of this sort will often elicit a sympathetic reply from another board user - someone with some stolen codes to hand. You dither a while, knowing this isn't quite right, then you make up your mind to try them anyhow - and they work! Suddenly you're doing something even your parents can't do. Six months ago you were just some kid - now, you're the Crimson Flash of Area Code 512! You're bad - you're nationwide! Maybe you'll stop at a few abused codes. Maybe you'll decide that boards aren't all that interesting after all, that it's wrong, not worth the risk - but maybe you won't. The next step is to pick up your own repeat-dialling program - to learn to generate your own stolen codes. (This was dead easy five years ago, much harder to get away with nowadays, but not yet impossible.) And these dialling programs are not complex or intimidating - some are as small as twenty lines of software. Now, you too can share codes. You can trade codes to learn other techniques. If you're smart enough to catch on, and obsessive enough to want to bother, and ruthless enough to start seriously bending rules, then you'll get better, fast. You start to develop a rep. You move up to a heavier class of board - a board with a bad attitude, the kind of board that naive dopes like your classmates and your former self have never even heard of! You pick up the jargon of phreaking and hacking from the board. You read a few of those anarchy philes - and man, you never realized you could be a real outlaw without ever leaving your bedroom.
You still play other computer games, but now you have a new and bigger game. This one will bring you a different kind of status than destroying even eight zillion lousy space invaders.
Hacking is perceived by hackers as a "game." This is not an entirely unreasonable or sociopathic perception. You can win or lose at hacking, succeed or fail, but it never feels "real." It's not simply that imaginative youngsters sometimes have a hard time telling "make-believe" from "real life." Cyberspace is not real! "Real" things are physical objects like trees and shoes and cars. Hacking takes place on a screen. Words aren't physical, numbers (even telephone numbers and credit card numbers) aren't physical. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but data will never hurt me. Computers simulate reality, like computer games that simulate tank battles or dogfights or spaceships. Simulations are just makebelieve, and the stuff in computers is not real.
Consider this: if "hacking" is supposed to be so serious and real-life and dangerous, then how come nine-year-old kids have computers and modems? You wouldn't give a nine year old his own car, or his own rifle, or his own chainsaw - those things are "real."
People underground are perfectly aware that the "game" is frowned upon by the powers that be. Word gets around about busts in the underground. Publicizing busts is one of the primary functions of pirate boards, but they also promulgate an attitude about them, and their own idiosyncratic ideas of justice. The users of underground boards won't complain if some guy is busted for crashing systems, spreading viruses, or stealing money by wirefraud. They may shake their heads with a sneaky grin, but they won't openly defend these practices. But when a kid is charged with some theoretical amount of theft: $233,846.14, for instance, because he sneaked into a computer and copied something, and kept it in his house on a floppy disk - this is regarded as a sign of near insanity from prosecutors, a sign that they've drastically mistaken the immaterial game of computing for their real and boring everyday world of fatcat corporate money.
It's as if big companies and their suck-up lawyers think that computing belongs to them, and they can retail it with price stickers, as if it were boxes of laundry soap! But pricing "information" is like trying to price air or price dreams. Well, anybody on a pirate board knows that computing can be, and ought to be, free. Pirate boards are little independent worlds in cyberspace, and they don't belong to anybody but the underground. Underground boards aren't "brought to you by Procter & Gamble."
To log on to an underground board can mean to experience liberation, to enter a world where, for once, money isn't everything and adults don't have all the answers.
Let's sample another vivid hacker manifesto. Here are some excerpts from "The Conscience of a Hacker," by "The Mentor," from Phrack Volume One, Issue 7, Phile 3.
"I made a discovery today. I found a computer. Wait a second, this is cool. It does what I want it to. If it makes a mistake, it's because I screwed it up. Not because it doesn't like me.(...)
"And then it happened... a door opened to a world... rushing through the phone line like heroin through an addict's veins, an electronic pulse is sent out, a refuge from day-to-day incompetencies is sought... a board is found. `This is it... this is where I belong...' "I know everyone here... even if I've never met them, never talked to them, may never hear from them again... I know you all...(...) "This is our world now... the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn't run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals. We explore... and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge... and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias... and you call us criminals. You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat and lie to us and try to make us believe that it's for our own good, yet we're the criminals.
"Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for."
The sysop of 8BBS was an ardent free-speech enthusiast who simply felt that any attempt to restrict the expression of his users was unconstitutional and immoral. Swarms of the technically curious entered 8BBS and emerged as phreaks and hackers, until, in 1982, a friendly 8BBS alumnus passed the sysop a new modem which had been purchased by credit card fraud. Police took this opportunity to seize the entire board and remove what they considered an attractive nuisance.
Plovernet was a powerful East Coast pirate board that operated in both New York and Florida. Owned and operated by teenage hacker "Quasi Moto," Plovernet attracted five hundred eager users in 1983. "Emmanuel Goldstein" was one-time co-sysop of Plovernet, along with "Lex Luthor," founder of the "Legion of Doom" group. Plovernet bore the signal honor of being the original home of the "Legion of Doom," about which the reader will be hearing a great deal, soon.
"Pirate-80," or "P-80," run by a sysop known as "Scan Man," got into the game very early in Charleston, and continued steadily for years. P-80 flourished so flagrantly that even its most hardened users became nervous, and some slanderously speculated that "Scan Man" must have ties to corporate security, a charge he vigorously denied.
"414 Private" was the home board for the first group to attract conspicuous trouble, the teenage "414 Gang," whose intrusions into Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Los Alamos military computers were to be a nine-days wonder in 1982.
At about this time, the first software piracy boards began to open up, trading cracked games for the Atari 800 and the Commodore C64. Naturally these boards were heavily frequented by teenagers. And with the 1983 release of the hacker-thriller movie War Games, the scene exploded. It seemed that every kid in America had demanded and gotten a modem for Christmas. Most of these dabbler wannabes put their modems in the attic after a few weeks, and most of the remainder minded their P's and Q's and stayed well out of hot water. But some stubborn and talented diehards had this hacker kid in War Games figured for a happening dude. They simply could not rest until they had contacted the underground - or, failing that, created their own.
In the mid-80s, underground boards sprang up like digital fungi. ShadowSpawn Elite. Sherwood Forest I, II, and III. Digital Logic Data Service in Florida, sysoped by no less a man than "Digital Logic" himself; Lex Luthor of the Legion of Doom was prominent on this board, since it was in his area code. Lex's own board, "Legion of Doom," started in 1984. The Neon Knights ran a network of Applehacker boards: Neon Knights North, South, East and West. Free World II was run by "Major Havoc." Lunatic Labs is still in operation as of this writing. Dr. Ripco in Chicago, an anything-goes anarchist board with an extensive and raucous history, was seized by Secret Service agents in 1990 on Sundevil day, but up again almost immediately, with new machines and scarcely diminished vigor.
The St. Louis scene was not to rank with major centers of American hacking such as New York and L.A. But St. Louis did rejoice in possession of "Knight Lightning" and "Taran King," two of the foremost journalists native to the underground. Missouri boards like Metal Shop, Metal Shop Private, Metal Shop Brewery, may not have been the heaviest boards around in terms of illicit expertise. But they became boards where hackers could exchange social gossip and try to figure out what the heck was going on nationally - and internationally. Gossip from Metal Shop was put into the form of news files, then assembled into a general electronic publication, Phrack, a portmanteau title coined from "phreak" and "hack." The Phrack editors were as obsessively curious about other hackers as hackers were about machines.
Phrack, being free of charge and lively reading, began to circulate throughout the underground. As Taran King and Knight Lightning left high school for college, Phrack began to appear on mainframe machines linked to BITNET, and, through BITNET to the "Internet," that loose but extremely potent not-for-profit network where academic, governmental and corporate machines trade data through the UNIX TCP/IP protocol. (The "Internet Worm" of November 2-3,1988, created by Cornell grad student Robert Morris, was to be the largest and bestpublicized computer intrusion scandal to date. Morris claimed that his ingenious "worm" program was meant to harmlessly explore the Internet, but due to bad programming, the Worm replicated out of control and crashed some six thousand Internet computers. Smaller scale and less ambitious Internet hacking was a standard for the underground elite.) Most any underground board not hopelessly lame and out-of-it would feature a complete run of Phrack - and, possibly, the lesser-known standards of the underground: the Legion of Doom Technical Journal, the obscene and raucous Cult of the Dead Cow files, P/HUN magazine, Pirate, the Syndicate Reports, and perhaps the highly anarcho-political Activist Times Incorporated.
Possession of Phrack on one's board was prima facie evidence of a bad attitude. Phrack was seemingly everywhere, aiding, abetting, and spreading the underground ethos. And this did not escape the attention of corporate security or the police.
We now come to the touchy subject of police and boards. Police, do, in fact, own boards. In 1989, there were police-sponsored boards in California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, Texas, and Virginia: boards such as "Crime Bytes," "Crimestoppers," "All Points" and "Bullet-N-Board." Police officers, as private computer enthusiasts, ran their own boards in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Missouri, Maryland, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas. Police boards have often proved helpful in community relations. Sometimes crimes are reported on police boards.
Sometimes crimes are committed on police boards. This has sometimes happened by accident, as naive hackers blunder onto police boards and blithely begin offering telephone codes. Far more often, however, it occurs through the now almost-traditional use of "sting boards." The first police sting-boards were established in 1985: "Underground Tunnel" in Austin, Texas, whose sysop Sgt. Robert Ansley called himself "Pluto" - "The Phone Company" in Phoenix, Arizona, run by Ken MacLeod of the Maricopa County Sheriff's office - and Sgt. Dan Pasquale's board in Fremont, California. Sysops posed as hackers, and swiftly garnered coteries of ardent users, who posted codes and loaded pirate software with abandon, and came to a sticky end.
Sting boards, like other boards, are cheap to operate, very cheap by the standards of undercover police operations. Once accepted by the local underground, sysops will likely be invited into other pirate boards, where they can compile more dossiers. And when the sting is announced and the worst offenders arrested, the publicity is generally gratifying. The resultant paranoia in the underground - perhaps more justly described as a "deterrence effect" - tends to quell local lawbreaking for quite a while.
Obviously police do not have to beat the underbrush for hackers. On the contrary, they can go trolling for them. Those caught can be grilled. Some become useful informants. They can lead the way to pirate boards all across the country.
And boards all across the country showed the sticky fingerprints of Phrack, and of that loudest and most flagrant of all underground groups, the "Legion of Doom."
The term "Legion of Doom" came from comic books. The Legion of Doom, a conspiracy of costumed supervillains headed by the chrome-domed criminal ultramastermind Lex Luthor, gave Superman a lot of four-color graphic trouble for a number of decades. Of course, Superman, that exemplar of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, always won in the long run. This didn't matter to the hacker Doomsters - "Legion of Doom" was not some thunderous and evil Satanic reference, it was not meant to be taken seriously. "Legion of Doom" came from funny-books and was supposed to be funny. "Legion of Doom" did have a good mouthfilling ring to it, though. It sounded really cool. Other groups, such as the "Farmers of Doom," closely allied to LoD, recognized this grandiloquent quality, and made fun of it. There was even a hacker group called "Justice League of America," named after Superman's club of true-blue crimefighting superheros.
But they didn't last; the Legion did. The original Legion of Doom, hanging out on Quasi Moto's Plovernet board, were phone phreaks. They weren't much into computers. "Lex Luthor" himself (who was under eighteen when he formed the Legion) was a COSMOS expert, COSMOS being the "Central System for Mainframe Operations," a telco internal computer network. Lex would eventually become quite a dab hand at breaking into IBM mainframes, but although everyone liked Lex and admired his attitude, he was not considered a truly accomplished computer intruder. Nor was he the "mastermind" of the Legion of Doom - LoD were never big on formal leadership. As a regular on Plovernet and sysop of his "Legion of Doom BBS," Lex was the Legion's cheerleader and recruiting officer.
Legion of Doom began on the ruins of an earlier phreak group, The Knights of Shadow. Later, LoD was to subsume the personnel of the hacker group "Tribunal of Knowledge." People came and went constantly in LoD; groups split up or formed offshoots.
Early on, the LoD phreaks befriended a few computer-intrusion enthusiasts, who became the associated "Legion of Hackers." Then the two groups conflated into the "Legion of Doom/Hackers," or LoD/H. When the original "hacker" wing, Messrs. "CompuPhreak" and "Phucked Agent 04," found other matters to occupy their time, the extra "/H" slowly atrophied out of the name; but by this time the phreak wing, Messrs. Lex Luthor, "Blue Archer," "Gary Seven," "Kerrang Khan," "Master of Impact," "Silver Spy," "The Marauder," and "The Videosmith," had picked up a plethora of intrusion expertise and had become a force to be reckoned with.
LoD members seemed to have an instinctive understanding that the way to real power in the underground lay through covert publicity. LoD were flagrant. Not only was it one of the earliest groups, but the members took pains to widely distribute their illicit knowledge. Some LoD members, like "The Mentor," were close to evangelical about it. Legion of Doom Technical Journal began to show up on boards throughout the underground.
LoD Technical Journalwas named in cruel parody of the ancient and honored AT&T Technical Journal. The material in these two publications was quite similar - much of it, adopted from public journals and discussions in the telco community. And yet, the predatory attitude of LoD made even its most innocuous data seem deeply sinister; an outrage; a clear and present danger.
To see why this should be, let's consider the following (invented) paragraphs, as a kind of thought experiment.
(A) "W. Fred Brown, AT&T Vice President for Advanced Technical Development, testified May 8 at a Washington hearing of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), regarding Bellcore's GARDEN project. GARDEN (Generalized Automatic Remote Distributed Electronic Network) is a telephone-switch programming tool that makes it possible to develop new telecom services, including hold-on-hold and customized message transfers, from any keypad terminal, within seconds. The GARDEN prototype combines centrex lines with a minicomputer using UNIX operating system software."
(B) "Crimson Flash 512 of the Centrex Mobsters reports: D00dz, you wouldn't believe this GARDEN bullshit Bellcore's just come up with! Now you don't even need a lousy Commodore to reprogram a switch - just log on to GARDEN as a technician, and you can reprogram switches right off the keypad in any public phone booth! You can give yourself hold-on-hold and customized message transfers, and best of all, the thing is run off (notoriously insecure) centrex lines using - get this - standard UNIX software! Ha ha ha ha!"
Message (A), couched in typical technobureaucratese, appears tedious and almost unreadable. (A) scarcely seems threatening or menacing. Message (B), on the other hand, is a dreadful thing, prima facie evidence of a dire conspiracy, definitely not the kind of thing you want your teenager reading. The information, however, is identical. It is public information, presented before the federal government in an open hearing. It is not "secret." It is not "proprietary." It is not even "confidential." On the contrary, the development of advanced software systems is a matter of great public pride to Bellcore. However, when Bellcore publicly announces a project of this kind, it expects a certain attitude from the public - something along the lines of gosh wow, you guys are great, keep that up, whatever it is - certainly not cruel mimickry, one-upmanship and outrageous speculations about possible security holes.
Now put yourself in the place of a policeman confronted by an outraged parent, or telco official, with a copy of Version (B). This well-meaning citizen, to his horror, has discovered a local bulletin-board carrying outrageous stuff like (B), which his son is examining with a deep and unhealthy interest. If (B) were printed in a book or magazine, you, as an American law enforcement officer, would know that it would take a hell of a lot of trouble to do anything about it; but it doesn't take technical genius to recognize that if there's a computer in your area harboring stuff like (B), there's going to be trouble.
In fact, if you ask around, any computer-literate cop will tell you straight out that boards with stuff like (B) are the source of trouble. And the worst source of trouble on boards are the ringleaders inventing and spreading stuff like (B). If it weren't for these jokers, there wouldn't be any trouble.
And Legion of Doom were on boards like nobody else. Plovernet. The Legion of Doom Board. The Farmers of Doom Board. Metal Shop. OSUNY. Blottoland. Private Sector. Atlantis. Digital Logic. Hell Phrozen Over.
LoD members also ran their own boards. "Silver Spy" started his own board, "Catch-22," considered one of the heaviest around. So did "Mentor," with his "Phoenix Project." When they didn't run boards themselves, they showed up on other people's boards, to brag, boast, and strut. And where they themselves didn't go, their philes went, carrying evil knowledge and an even more evil attitude. As early as 1986, the police were under the vague impression that everyone in the underground was Legion of Doom. LoD was never that large - considerably smaller than either "Metal Communications" or "The Administration," for instance - but LoD got tremendous press. Especially in Phrack, which at times read like an LoD fan magazine; and Phrack was everywhere, especially in the offices of telco security. You couldn't get busted as a phone phreak, a hacker, or even a lousy codes kid or warez dood, without the cops asking if you were LoD.
This was a difficult charge to deny, as LoD never distributed membership badges or laminated ID cards. If they had, they would likely have died out quickly, for turnover in their membership was considerable. LoD was less a high-tech street-gang than an ongoing state of mind. LoD was the Gang That Refused to Die. By 1990, LoD had ruled for ten years, and it seemed weird to police that they were continually busting people who were only sixteen years old. All these teenage small-timers were pleading the tiresome hacker litany of "just curious, no criminal intent." Somewhere at the center of this conspiracy there had to be some serious adult masterminds, not this seemingly endless supply of myopic suburban white kids with high SATs and funny haircuts.
There was no question that most any American hacker arrested would "know" LoD. They knew the handles of contributors to LoD Tech Journal, and were likely to have learned their craft through LoD boards and LoD activism. But they'd never met anyone from LoD. Even some of the rotating cadre who were actually and formally "in LoD" knew one another only by board-mail and pseudonyms. This was a highly unconventional profile for a criminal conspiracy. Computer networking, and the rapid evolution of the digital underground, made the situation very diffuse and confusing.
Furthermore, a big reputation in the digital underground did not coincide with one's willingness to commit "crimes." Instead, reputation was based on cleverness and technical mastery. As a result, it often seemed that the heavier the hackers were, the less likely they were to have committed any kind of common, easily prosecutable crime. There were some hackers who could really steal. And there were hackers who could really hack. But the two groups didn't seem to overlap much, if at all. For instance, most people in the underground looked up to "Emmanuel Goldstein" of 2600 as a hacker demigod. But Goldstein's publishing activities were entirely legal - Goldstein just printed dodgy stuff and talked about politics, he didn't even hack. When you came right down to it, Goldstein spent half his time complaining that computer security wasn't strong enough and ought to be drastically improved across the board!
Truly heavy-duty hackers, those with serious technical skills who had earned the respect of the underground, never stole money or abused credit cards. Sometimes they might abuse phone-codes - but often, they seemed to get all the free phone-time they wanted without leaving a trace of any kind.
The best hackers, the most powerful and technically accomplished, were not professional fraudsters. They raided computers habitually, but wouldn't alter anything, or damage anything. They didn't even steal computer equipment - most had day-jobs messing with hardware, and could get all the cheap secondhand equipment they wanted. The hottest hackers, unlike the teenage wannabes, weren't snobs about fancy or expensive hardware. Their machines tended to be raw second-hand digital hot-rods full of custom add-ons that they'd cobbled together out of chickenwire, memory chips and spit. Some were adults, computer software writers and consultants by trade, and making quite good livings at it. Some of them actually worked for the phone company - and for those, the "hackers" actually found under the skirts of Ma Bell, there would be little mercy in 1990.
It has long been an article of faith in the underground that the "best" hackers never get caught. They're far too smart, supposedly. They never get caught because they never boast, brag, or strut. These demigods may read underground boards (with a condescending smile), but they never say anything there. The "best" hackers, according to legend, are adult computer professionals, such as mainframe system administrators, who already know the ins and outs of their particular brand of security. Even the "best" hacker can't break in to just any computer at random: the knowledge of security holes is too specialized, varying widely with different software and hardware. But if people are employed to run, say, a UNIX mainframe or a VAX/VMS machine, then they tend to learn security from the inside out. Armed with this knowledge, they can look into most anybody else's UNIX or VMS without much trouble or risk, if they want to. And, according to hacker legend, of course they want to, so of course they do. They just don't make a big deal of what they've done. So nobody ever finds out.
It is also an article of faith in the underground that professional telco people "phreak" like crazed weasels. Of course they spy on Madonna's phone calls - I mean, wouldn't you? Of course they give themselves free long-distance - why the hell should they pay, they're running the whole shebang! It has, as a third matter, long been an article of faith that any hacker caught can escape serious punishment if he confesses how he did it. Hackers seem to believe that governmental agencies and large corporations are blundering about in cyberspace like eyeless jellyfish or cave salamanders. They feel that these large but pathetically stupid organizations will proffer up genuine gratitude, and perhaps even a security post and a big salary, to the hot-shot intruder who will deign to reveal to them the supreme genius of his modus operandi. In the case of longtime LoD member "Control-C," this actually happened, more or less. Control-C had led Michigan Bell a merry chase, and when captured in 1987, he turned out to be a bright and apparently physically harmless young fanatic, fascinated by phones. There was no chance in hell that Control-C would actually repay the enormous and largely theoretical sums in long-distance service that he had accumulated from Michigan Bell. He could always be indicted for fraud or computer-intrusion, but there seemed little real point in this - he hadn't physically damaged any computer. He'd just plead guilty, and he'd likely get the usual slap-on-the-wrist, and in the meantime it would be a big hassle for Michigan Bell just to bring up the case. But if kept on the payroll, he might at least keep his fellow hackers at bay.
There were uses for him. For instance, a contrite Control-C was featured on Michigan Bell internal posters, sternly warning employees to shred their trash. He'd always gotten most of his best inside info from "trashing" - raiding telco dumpsters, for useful data indiscreetly thrown away. He signed these posters, too. Control-C had become something like a Michigan Bell mascot. And in fact, Control-C did keep other hackers at bay. Little hackers were quite scared of Control-C and his heavy-duty Legion of Doom friends. And big hackers were his friends and didn't want to screw up his cushy situation.
No matter what one might say of LoD, they did stick together. When "Wasp," an apparently genuinely malicious New York hacker, began crashing Bellcore machines, Control-C received swift volunteer help from "the Mentor" and the Georgia LoD wing made up of "The Prophet," "Urvile," and "Leftist." Using Mentor's Phoenix Project board to coordinate, the Doomsters helped telco security to trap Wasp, by luring him into a machine with a tap and line-trace installed. Wasp lost. LoD won! And my, did they brag.
Urvile, Prophet and Leftist were well-qualified for this activity, probably more so even than the quite accomplished Control-C. The Georgia boys knew all about phone switching-stations. Though relative johnny-come-latelies in the Legion of Doom, they were considered some of LoD's heaviest guys, into the hairiest systems around. They had the good fortune to live in or near Atlanta, home of the sleepy and apparently tolerant BellSouth RBOC.
As RBOC security went, BellSouth were "cake." US West (of Arizona, the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest) were tough and aggressive, probably the heaviest RBOC around. Pacific Bell, California's PacBell, were sleek, high-tech, and longtime veterans of the LA phone-phreak wars. NYNEX had the misfortune to run the New York City area, and were warily prepared for most anything. Even Michigan Bell, a division of the Ameritech RBOC, at least had the elementary sense to hire their own hacker as a useful scarecrow. But BellSouth, even though their corporate P.R. proclaimed them to have "Everything You Expect From a Leader," were pathetic.
When rumor about LoD's mastery of Georgia's switching network got around to BellSouth through Bellcore and telco security scuttlebutt, they at first refused to believe it. If you paid serious attention to every rumor out and about these hacker kids, you would hear all kinds of wacko saucer-nut nonsense: that the National Security Agency monitored all American phone calls, that the CIA and DEA tracked traffic on bulletin-boards with wordanalysis programs, that the Condor could start World War III from a payphone.
If there were hackers into BellSouth switching stations, then how come nothing had happened? Nothing had been hurt. BellSouth's machines weren't crashing. BellSouth wasn't suffering especially badly from fraud. BellSouth's customers weren't complaining. BellSouth was headquartered in Atlanta, ambitious metropolis of the new high-tech Sunbelt; and BellSouth was upgrading its network by leaps and bounds, digitizing the works left, right and center. They could hardly be considered sluggish or naive. BellSouth's technical expertise was second to none, thank you kindly.
But then came the Florida business.
On June 13, 1989, callers to the Palm Beach County Probation Department, in Delray Beach, Florida, found themselves involved in a remarkable discussion with a phone sex worker named "Tina" in New York State. Somehow, any call to this probation office near Miami was instantly and magically transported across state lines, at no extra charge to the user, to a pornographic phone sex hotline hundreds of miles away!
This practical joke may seem utterly hilarious at first hearing, and indeed there was a good deal of chuckling about it in phone phreak circles, including the Autumn 1989 issue of 2600. But for Southern Bell (the division of the BellSouth RBOC supplying local service for Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina), this was a smoking gun. For the first time ever, a computer intruder had broken into a BellSouth central office switching station and re-programmed it!
Or so BellSouth thought in June 1989. Actually, LoD members had been frolicking harmlessly in BellSouth switches since September 1987. The stunt of June 13 - call-forwarding a number through manipulation of a switching station - was child's play for hackers as accomplished as the Georgia wing of LoD. Switching calls interstate sounded like a big deal, but it took only four lines of code to accomplish this. An easy, yet more discreet, stunt, would be to call-forward another number to your own house. If you were careful and considerate, and changed the software back later, then not a soul would know.
Except you. And whoever you had bragged to about it.
As for BellSouth, what they didn't know wouldn't hurt them. Except now somebody had blown the whole thing wide open, and BellSouth knew. A now alerted and considerably paranoid BellSouth began searching switches right and left for signs of impropriety, in that hot summer of 1989. No fewer than forty-two BellSouth employees were put on 12-hour shifts, twenty-four hours a day, for two solid months, poring over records and monitoring computers for any sign of phony access. These forty-two overworked experts were known as BellSouth's "Intrusion Task Force."
Copyright (c) 1992, 1994 Bruce Sterling - firstname.lastname@example.org.
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