Going to California

The Hacker Crackdown — 2

Don’t get me wrong, though. Just because we call it the Hacker Crackdown, it doesn’t mean that a bunch of hackers didn’t get arrested before that, in the 1980s. They certainly did. It came up in the news with some seriousness maybe twice a year, and many more stories circulated about various kids and grown-ups getting picked up. I certainly lived in fear of being caught, and most hackers were like me in that they refused to engage in what we called “carding,” what the police called credit-card fraud. Only reasonably paranoid hackers were both able to maintain a long-term interest in hacking while surviving long enough to get good enough to avoid being targeted by the cops.

A lot of hackers were anti-social, but they weren’t doing anything strictly illegal, which they thought would keep the feds from targeting them. But apparently this general attitude — okay, combined with some genuinely serious and flagrant law-breaking from people like Fry Guy — so infuriated and frightened some federal authorities that they stopped caring whether or not they had evidence of illegal activity. Instead, if you were a hacker, or were in any way related to hackers, or you hosted a board where a hacker had an account, there was a small window of time in the first two months of 1990 when you were probably going to have an unpleasant conversation.

The story of how the authorities arrived at this attitude — sadly a very modern one, in retrospect — is almost as interesting a story as what they did with their attitude. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have the full story, and likely never will, given that the federal authorities in question were harshly, publicly, and fairly humiliated, and probably aren’t in a mood, even twenty-three years later, to reflect on what truly motivated their idiocy.

That said, here’s how it looked to me at the time.

Everyone knows about the Secret Service as the guys in black suits with wireless earpieces who act as personal security for the president and other important people related to our government. Most people don’t know that for more than a hundred years of their history — until ten years ago, in fact — they were actually agents of the U.S. Treasury. The Secret Service was founded by the federal government just after the Civil War, to combat counterfeiters. With the Confederate government and its economy both collapsed, people holding Confederate money lost everything. So the South saw a quick spike in U.S. currency counterfeiting by destitute Southerners. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Secret Service into existence a few hours before his assassination.

Through the Twentieth Century, many of the Secret Service’s original responsibilities were divided up between the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Today, they still have the core of their original mandate, attacking fraud of various kinds — especially forgery, wire fraud, and credit-card fraud.

This is how, when a Secret Service agent got the great idea that someone had to do something about these hacker people, he had the jurisdiction to push his ideas. It’s been speculated that everyone went along with him both because knocking over America’s phone network isn’t something to take lying down and because the Secret Service was desperate for more relevancy and in general a higher profile in the modern age. What we call the Hacker Crackdown, they called Operation Sundevil. It was going to be awesome.

At the same time, I’d made a couple of friends in Austin, both of them through disconnected social circles, who happened to comprise some the heaviest hitters among the Legion of Doom who hadn’t been arrested in the previous summer’s sweep in Atlanta. They were clever and dedicated and curious, and they were not robbing anyone or logging into a McDonalds mainframe to give their friends pay-raises (as Fry Guy had done; he got his name because, well, he was 16 and he worked at a McDonalds). The Austin guys weren’t committing wire fraud, but they were flaunting their knowledge and flouting authority’s concerns about exploring any system they could find. Increasingly, computers were networked together, so having some authority in one system could lead to real influence over other systems. With more and more computers coming online all the time, it looked to be a never-ending exploration.

I’m not even sure they knew that I knew them both. They called themselves The Mentor, and Erik Bloodaxe. They ran a bulletin-board system called The Phoenix Project. It was a security forum where everyone from the youngest little want-to-be hacker kid to the most experienced corporate security officer could meet to share thoughts and perspectives. It had a solid archive of security notes. It was not going out of its way to offend anyone, though it was unashamedly affiliated with the Legion of Doom, so it got into the Secret Service’s cross-hairs that way.

At the time, I was living north of Austin, in the Dallas/Fort Worth area of Texas, still grudgingly learning to be a student at the University of Texas at Arlington, though my girlfriend was in Austin. I tried to come down every two or three weeks to see her. She lived in the dorms, which did not allow sleepovers with boyfriends, so when I came to town we’d stay at my buddy Sam’s place.

One weekend at the end of February I was down in Austin, and the strangest thing happened: Erik Bloodaxe, who Sam had known as far back as when they were both twelve or thirteen years old, showed up at Sam’s apartment. I had gone out, but here’s what I was told. He looked shaken, for reasons he wouldn’t talk about. He had a couple of milk crates worth of computer disks and papers and what-not, and here’s what he told Sam: Put these in your closet, in the back of your closet, and cover them with something; I was not here, you haven’t seen me; I may call you in a couple of days to check in on this stuff, but do not trust that cops are not listening in — don’t say anything about these crates, but find some way to let me know whether or not you still have them without actually mentioning that they exist. Okay? And everyone said, “Wow, he finally snapped.”

Less than a week after that, Erik Bloodaxe woke up looking down the barrel of a police revolver.

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