Going to California

The Hacker Crackdown — 3

Like Erik Bloodaxe, when the Secret Service came for the Mentor, he and his wife had prepared for what they expected might happen. What happened, though, was not what anyone expected.

It was the 1st of March. Six weeks earlier, the phone network across America’s eastern seaboard had crashed. Somebody had taken it down, clearly — these things don’t crash themselves — and so, clearly, someone in authority had to go out and find somebody. Two days after the crash, a hacker named Terminus was picked up by the Secret Service and accused of having done it. He denied it, as would everyone else ever accused of a connection to what could only have been a criminal act. Like three of the four hackers who’d been arrested the previous summer, Terminus was connected to the Legion of Doom.

Well, thought the Mentor, time to close up shop. He had a good job at a great game company — the game he’d been developing was about to be published, after many delays. He had a great wife and a solid life and hacking was fun but it wasn’t worth risking all of that. Nine months earlier, after the Atlanta arrests, he had held a Texas barbecue in his backyard, and nearly every piece of paper with a number written on it was turned into ash. After they arrested Terminus, he had sadly set his computer — freakishly over-powered at the time, sporting a massive 210 Megabyte hard drive — to overwriting every sector of storage with garbage data, repeatedly, foiling even unreasonable efforts to recover anything that might have been on the drive.

And the worst part: there wasn’t even anything illegal on the drive. Unlike many hackers, the Legion of Doom had tremendous scruples about what they would and wouldn’t do. They didn’t believe in crashing systems for the hell of it. They didn’t believe in destroying other people’s data. They loved information, and they loved exploring hidden spaces to find new information. It wasn’t easy to gain membership in the Legion of Doom. You had to prove that you were going to show restraint with the knowledge you were being given, and then you had to keep playing nice or you’d get kicked out. A noted hacker had in fact been kicked out for doing stupid shit. So they lived by their ethics. Mentor and Bloodaxe were running a bulletin-board system to further spread good knowledge and strong ethical behavior, and it was gutting to have to take it all down.

A little over a month after taking down his board, the Phoenix Project, on the morning of March the 1st, the doorbell rang around 6 AM. On the other side of the door, Mentor and his wife found not only Secret Service agents, but a large party of authorities: city, county, state, and even campus police, ensuring that if Mentor was in any way bust-able for anything, however small, there would be someone there with the jurisdiction to do the busting.
They made a thorough search, they packed up his computer and anything they thought might contain the proof of what they so strongly believed to be his excessive malfeasance, and they took Mentor and his wife separately aside for some long conversations. They seemed frustrated. Whether or not they were in communication with the team who was interrogating Erik Bloodaxe, who must themselves have been growing frustrated at how little they were able to turn up, they could not have been happy at uncovering no obvious evidence of computer infiltration or phone phreaking activity — very much unlike the joyous busts of other members of the Legion of Doom.

Then they heard about the game Mentor was going to publish, and that changed everything.

One of the difficulties that the Secret Service had in talking with the Mentor was that he was and still is fiercely intelligent. So when they started pestering him about the overlap between his job as a cover for any hacking activity, but it turned out they didn’t know what his job actually was — their background dossier on him was years out of date, for whatever reason — he had easy answers: he may have had a programming job a long time ago, but for years he had been working at a game company just a few blocks down the low, sloping road. You could stand on his front porch and lean a little bit to one side and see the Steve Jackson Games offices not too far away, right before the street turned sharply to the left.

Just like the fictional feds in Verner Vinge’s True Names, the U.S. Secret Service agents in question had presumed that most adult hackers were using their super-villain knowledge to enrich themselves by working in a field where those skills could most powerfully be applied. And in fact, a good number of the adults who had been busted were contract unix programmers for AT&T or something similar, and this reinforced the Secret Service’s prejudice. It didn’t make sense to them that a world-class hacker would not leverage what he had learned to get ahead in the real world.

So they kept talking to Mentor, and that’s when they found out about cyberpunk.

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