Going to California

The Hacker Crackdown — 3.5

So there was money in cyberpunk, and a lot of it, especially for the people who had the vision to see where things were going, and when the Secret Service knocked on Mentor’s door, Steve Jackson Games was close to finally sending their cyberpunk game to be printed, which would’ve made them number three to the cyberpunk-game party. More importantly, because they were going through financial straits, Mentor’s book was basically going to save the company.

It’s easy to imagine that the Secret Service and the rest of the law-enforcement agents they corralled into their adventuring party had never heard of cyberpunk. It’s easy to imagine how they could have felt when finally what they were hearing fit the narrative they were expecting: the hacker they were there to bust had been leveraging his evil knowledge to enrich himself in the real world by building an education on the underground into a game.

Keep in mind that Mentor had been merrily shipping books to the Legion of Doom guys in Atlanta, who were avid gamers. When the Secret Service walked away from those busts with boxes of paper evidence, a lot of pages contained cryptically hand-written numbers related to actual hacking efforts, and a lot of pages contained equally cryptic numbers related to the elaborate role-playing games in which the guys were so frequently engaged. Sometimes the same page would even have both kinds of information.

It’s easy to imagine how excited the agents were that the game company was right there, at the bottom of the hill — they could almost see it from where they were — because of what they did next.

I’d done some intern-level work for Steve Jackson Games, and good friends with a good number of people there. I’d spent months helping them plan a convention, and a bit later I ended up spending four and a half years of my life in that building, into which the Secret Service stormed, guns drawn, to raid the place. They broke locks, they engaged in some playful vandalism, and they walked out with every computer that was thought to hold a copy of the cyberpunk book — including the company’s official bulletin-board system — as well as every hard-copy they could find, which was every one that anyone had with the last several months changes, and the game had been changing rapidly. They even took the expensive in-house printer, in case a copy of the book was tucked away in there somewhere.

When Steve Jackson confronted the Secret Service, they told him that the cyberpunk game was a thinly veiled handbook for computer crime. He tried explaining the reality of the situation, that it was science-fiction, but over and over the Secret Service said, “No, this is real.” This was at their office, with his lawyers. They were staring at what was essentially a rather glamorous adventure for Dungeons & Dragons, confusing it for The Anarchist’s Cookbook for a new age. And if the same guys who’d interrogated Mentor had ever gotten a look at the evidence hauled away from the Atlanta hackers, you could sort of see how they were able to jump to that conclusion. After all, it made their story work.

Two months and about a week later, in May of 1990, the Secret Service seemed proud to announce the success of Operation Sundevil, the real hacker crackdown. Everything I’ve told you so far was just a prelude, a bit of research, in advance of the big hammer coming down. Their short press release read, in part, “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.”

One hundred and fifty agents across at least twelve cities took down twenty-five bulletin-board systems, capturing 42 computers and as many as 23,000 floppy disks. They executed twenty-seven search warrants, leading to three arrests.

If I had kept doing what I’d been doing in high school, one of those warrants would probably have been for me, even though like most people who had agents appear on their doorstep that day, I hadn’t been stealing anything or hurting anybody. So while I was mad when the Mentor and Erik Bloodaxe and Steve Jackson Games were raided, the hacker crackdown two months later was chilling. Weeks later I moved back to Austin, into uncertain times.

As with Erik Bloodaxe, they never pressed charges against Mentor. And as with all the other innocents who had tens of thousands of dollars in computer equipment taken from them for no good reason, he was expected to suck up his loss — and the disruption to his life, and to his wife’s graduate thesis, and to all the people on his team who had to be laid off at work because the book that was going to save the company would definitely be postponed — because the Secret Service wanted to make it clear that possessing certain simple knowledge was not only anti-social, it was illegal, and it was punishable by whatever they had within arm’s reach to throw at you. They could march into your home and take what they wanted because it was legal, and because they had a story to tell.

Unfortunately for the U.S. Secret Service, while their agents had done the right thing and gotten warrants for their raids on Fry Guy and the Atlanta Three and Terminus and Erik Bloodaxe and the Mentor and at least twenty-seven others, they did not have a warrant for the raid on Steve Jackson Games.

I can’t say that Mentor played them, but something he must have said about his cyberpunk game, or the way he said it, must have caused their frustration with being doubly empty-handed to boil over into a ludicrous rush downhill to a game company’s offices, adrenaline pumping, waving employees away with their pistols while they ransacked the place instead of waiting the short bit of time for a legal warrant to raid Steve Jackson Games. Not that what they ended up doing would have been legal, but we’ll get to that. A legally warranted raid still would have shattered the company, as it would be months before they let Steve access even some of his captured data, and five years before we got our equipment back.

I think the U.S. Secret Service agents were lying to themselves about why they were doing what they were doing. It quickly stopped being about finding out who had crashed the phone network. After a century of authority being leached out of the Secret Service — to the Federal Bureau of Investigation; to the Internal Revenue Service; to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives — I think it was a power-play to claim jurisdiction over hacker-related crime.

Sometimes the thing you focus on avoiding is what you end up hitting. On the other side of the Secret Service’s colossal missteps, which I’m not even through cataloging, the FBI have firmly held jurisdiction over “threats to the nation’s cyber-security”. The Secret Service agents were busy-looking but ultimately lazy, and this was coming from someone who knew what lazy-but-busy looked like. It would take a few years before the U.S. Department of Justice made that Secret Service operation and their federal supporters pay for their moral misbehavior, but thanks to what Mentor had set in motion, they would eventually be undone.

More importantly, even after Operation Sundevil, they never found anyone who knew anything about that January’s fateful telephone network crash, in part because their narrative had no room for the idea that the system could have brought itself down — which was, it turned out, exactly what had happened.

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