Going to California

The Hacker Crackdown

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Hackers, at their best, press against our boundaries, bending the present for a glimpse of possible futures. Most cultures owe a lot to their hackers, but relentless exploration comes with a blind spot: when you’re steadfastly focused on pressing against boundaries, it’s easy to forget that some boundaries will push back.

In the mid-1980s, as the analog telephone switches were going digital, many people at the phone company breathed a sigh of relief. The transition would close the door to whistle-type phone hacking once and for all. However, these same people seem to have genuinely thought they were securing their network by installing a computer at every major call-switching juncture — a networked, programmable computer. Clearly they had no idea what hackers got up to in their spare time.

And hackers have spare time, let me tell you. When they weren’t lowering themselves into a Southwestern Bell dumpster looking for discarded documentation, or war-dialing through large ranges of phone numbers in hopes of finding new computers to reach out and touch, hackers were talking at length about how best to play with what they had already learned about the new and fantastically broad network of computers which had popped up in a short couple of years. Hacking this new network also provided something that had not been so easy to get before: a pretty perfect mechanism for fraud.

But before we get there, here’s something to consider. If you were to take the hackers of the late 1980s and early 1990s and lay out in modern terms what they were doing, exploring the network would probably be modern authority’s least concern. There was far more explosive information being shared — for example, literally about explosives. In Bruce Sterling’s expert dissection of these times in The Hacker Crackdown, he wrote that “spreading knowledge about demolitions to teenagers is a highly and deliberately antisocial act.” This is true. But it was also one of the many deliberately antisocial acts in which hackers regularly engaged, because it was exciting, and antisocial. While it was assumed that basically no one actually tried building the explosives described in the “philes” that were most commonly distributed, I was starkly reminded of what could be done when a group of kids who called themselves The Legion of Doom descended on the Fort Worth Texas high school where my mother worked.

The “Lejun uv Dume,” as they called themselves, had no connection to another Legion of Doom, a group of hackers, who you’ll be hearing about in a moment. In the mid-1980s, a handful of honor students — along with, news reports were excited to note, a cheerleader — decided it was their role to rid the school of the drug dealers and other unsavories. So they did what any righteous, vigilante-minded late-Twentieth Century Texas kids might do and they built some pipe bombs and tried to burn down someone’s house.

The authorities jumped on those kids with both knees. What surprised me, in the mid-1980s, was how the story was early enough in our obsession over computer crime that the media never once tried to associate these upper-class honor students with the hacker community. Less than five years later, the hacker community likely would have taken the hit as the most probable source of bomb-building knowledge. Given the explosion of personal computers and modems in middle-class households, the computer underground might have been where those kids got their information in the first place.*

If I were to spend an evening on Google searching for explosives recipes, like what the underground boards used to offer up without a second thought, I’m not sure if it would be weeks or days before I got an unpleasant visit from one or more people in a suit. I’m not going to test it, though I think it’s fair to say that in America today, that form of terrorism is where people’s fears rest.

By the end of the 1980s, the authorities had much larger hacker-related concerns than the distribution of pipe-bomb recipes, if you can imagine that. They weren’t afraid hackers were going to change a bunch of people’s grades, or steal anyone’s credit cards. They were afraid the hackers were going to take down civilization — even worse, they might only do it as a joke.

The most bad-ass hackers of the era, predating the high-schoolers mentioned above, also called themselves the Legion of Doom. (Again, they pre-dated the Texas high-school vigilantes.) Everyone, even the authorities, presumed that if anyone could take down the phone system, it would be them. But could and would and did are three very different things.

What the hackers who called themselves the Legion of Doom could do and did do cuts across a wide range of wince-inducing offenses, from basic pranking to what could be called theft, a lot of which even at the time was less about reality and more part of the brag, the game of one-upmanship that hackers play with one another. To my knowledge, none of them ever did anything to U.S. federal authorities.

What U.S. federal authorities could do and did do to the hackers who called themselves the Legion of Doom is a sad matter of public record. Bruce Sterling’s book is an extended blow-by-blow of this whole mess, and I’ve no interest in simply repeating it. Still, I saw a lot in that time, and I knew about some of the events which took place as part of the Hacker Crackdown that I haven’t seen written down anywhere. Before I work my way on to why the detectives hired me in California, you should probably hear some of this.

The first elite hacker kid to get taken down was a 16-year-old boy, Fry Guy, who got busted like an idiot for credit-card fraud. He offered to help the authorities bring down the Legion of Doom, who he blamed for having turned him into what he had become.** He urged the feds to take him seriously, claiming that the LoD planned to disable the phone system during a major holiday, sometime in the next six months, because they could, because it would be funny.

Almost exactly six months after Fry Guy’s prediction, in January of 1990, on Martin Luther King Day, the U.S. East Coast’s phone system crashed hard and it stayed down for a long time. The phone company was at a total loss to explain how this could have happened, but some people remembered what Fry Guy had said, and they were shaken. Freaking out over a threat that they’d been worried about for years, a small group of authorities refocused their attention on the Legion of Doom and they began the sweep that people would call the Hacker Crackdown. Things went badly, quickly, for pretty much everybody: the hackers, the authorities, and a bunch of innocent people.

It went especially badly for the innocents. Here’s what happened.

 

* After I first published this, an old friend, Nathan Schattman, reminded me that he had known one of the kids involved, and that he was as old-school analog as they come, swinging an officially published copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook — which, as of this writing, remains a #1 best-seller for Amazon.

** Fry Guy blamed his credit-card fraud skills on the Atlanta members of the Legion of Doom, though that wasn’t strictly correct. Mentor reminded me recently that the Atlanta guys were not into credit-card fraud, which Bruce Sterling also backs up. The LoD taught Fry Guy how to be a phone phreak, not how to be a thief. Fry Guy, 16 years old at the time of his arrest, was likely trying to push the blame off onto the other hackers.

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