Going to California

The Hacker Crackdown — 6

I loved cyberpunk. It was an alluring nightmare. The dystopias of Blade Runner and Neuromancer and Snow Crash, and even True Names and Max Headroom, were as powerfully sexy as they were also alarming commentary on where things seemed to be heading. Cautionary tales, and terrific high-tech dreams.

Science-fiction, before cyberpunk, had focused on stars and aliens and zap guns and rockets and robots, the post-war flying-saucer spectacle. Star Wars and later Alien rubbed a bit of dirt on science-fiction and made the characters a little less stilted, more approachable, with fewer silver-shiny suits. Cyberpunk took away the rockets and the zap guns and the aliens. People no longer yearned for the stars, but holy crap did we have awesome computers. And terrible corporations have mostly overpowered the world’s governments, strangling humanity at least a little bit, while powerful new things, like early artificial intelligences, begin to appear.

I said that cyberpunk got rid of aliens, but actually I was wrong. Early artificial life forms are the alien beings who our criminal anti-heroes encounter.

Cyberpunk people spend as much time as possible in a virtual world — sometimes a single big one, but more often a lot of little ones (as well as a few secret ones) — where the people you encounter could as easily be on the other side of the world as they might be artificially intelligent.

It’s a world with so many computers, of so many shapes and sizes, that they were essentially disposable. You could get super-expensive ones, still, certainly, but a phone you could dig out of the trash could get you online and keep you mobile while connected, for only a few credits paid ahead.

And once online, if you knew the address of anyone else, you could reach out to them — immediately talk to them, seeing them over video — even play video games with each other and fall in love, or hunt someone, find them, harm them.

Many, many more people in the cyberpunk world have a lot of time on their hands, and a lot of computing power in those hands, and they learn how to do very destructive things. The largest scale operations have turned millions of computers into totally remote controlled instruments of whatever the hell the network’s owner decides they should do, from looking for credit card numbers to looking for spreadsheets at companies which are about to report their quarterly numbers.

We imagined a cyberpunk world of computer criminals, because we were afraid that was where things were headed. And it basically seems to be where we’ve arrived.

The Secret Service went hunting hackers because they were afraid that we had already arrived at a cyberpunk world of computer crime. They spent a crazy amount of money — 150 agents? 23,000 floppy disks? — as part of a massive bet which basically presumed that the world described in cyberpunk science-fiction was as much a reality as technology would meaningfully allow.

How much is 23,000 floppy disks, in terms of data? Depending on the kind of disks they were, it’s between 7–30 gigabytes. In today’s terms, that’s between seven and ten high-definition movies. In the mid-1980s, a name-brand box of 10 disks cost nearly $40. Let’s say they cost $1 each in 1990, so it’s easy to see how much 23,000 floppies worth of storage would cost. In 2013, I can get that same amount of storage in a plastic stick about as long as an infant’s thumb, ordered online and delivered to my home by Google in under 4 hours for $15.

It’s not a terrific stretch to say that we are today not far from the everyday cyberpunk ideal. Most of what I described above is day-to-day reality today for most of the Western nations, and increasingly for most of the rest of the world. There were roughly fifteen times as many computers in the world at the start of 2010 as there were at the start of 1990, when AT&T’s network shouted itself into oblivion for a few hours. That might sound like a lot of computers, but I stopped the numbers at 2010 because that’s about the time phones begin to get counted in the number of “computers” made and shipped. I’m writing this in 2013, and the last three years have seen what we had previously called computers — laptops and still the occasional desktop — dwarfed by tiny, mobile computing products, phones and tablets, which now themselves steadily sprint toward a new evolution.

I love charts.

And simply saying that there are fifteen times as many computers in 2010 than in 1990 doesn’t even scratch the surface of talking about how much more power we have. Our computing power is incredible, and the threats to that power, and our many cat photos, are wide-spread, malicious, and very persistent.

To be fair, science-fiction authors of the 1980s and ’90s were only so visionary. They never considered how much of cyberspace would be filled with advertising, and how unnecessarily clumsy the filtering controls would be, and I don’t think you can blame them because it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, either — though it is undeniably the current reality.

The agents of the U.S. Secret Service who were responsible for Operation Sundevil should be acknowledged as the futurists they were. They went looking for an emerging threat that looks basically like where we are now. They were right, even though they were twenty years ahead of their time. Maybe they would’ve done better writing science-fiction.

Going to California

The Hacker Crackdown — 5

The hacking world was a big place, in the extended sense. There were a lot of curious and tech-minded people, almost entirely guys, who had leveraged their interest into great success. It had been rumored that Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, while in college, had made and sold little tone-generating boxes that would let you make free long-distance calls — and in fact today you can see a Blue Box built by Apple’s co-founder in a museum.

So it really should have been only so great a surprise when, after Steve Jackson spent months merely trying to gain access to the data seized by the Secret Service, a collection of successful hackers including John Perry Barlow, Mitch Kapor, and, yes, Steve Wozniak, put up the money to create an organization called the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Today, the EFF is a famous lobbying group, with a long history of helping the digital downtrodden. The day after announcing their formation, the EFF announced their first case: Steve Jackson Games versus the U.S. Secret Service.

They spent $200,000 over nearly four years before finally getting the Secret Service into the courtroom, and those were early-1990s dollars. The stated goal of the trial was to establish for the first time that email was not virtual or somehow theoretical, but that it had the same existence as physical mail, and deserved the same protection. And it’s true that electronic mail has a physical manifestation. It sits on a disk in the form of tiny bits of magnetic material, representing either a one or a zero, written by a tiny magnet no differently than a letter written by pen or pencil.

The U.S. Department of Justice defended the Secret Service, saying that email on a server wasn’t private at all, because if you gave your mail to someone else to store then you’d given up any concern about its contents. They probably just forgot about how safety-deposit boxes work, because otherwise putting your private love-letters in a bank vault should be the equivalent of granting the U.S. Department of Justice permission to read them at will.

This was a serious concern, because after days and weeks and finally months of Steve Jackson being told that yes, tomorrow we’ll let you at your data, when he finally got one of his machines back it was apparent that someone working for the Secret Service had read people’s personal emails, and then deleted them. Steve was able to recover the content of the email by having someone perform some minor digital forensics on the disk itself. Clearly some quite personal messages, having nothing to do with the investigation, had been meddled with — again, without a warrant.

Then there was the worst part, really: in America, we don’t suppress publications until after they’ve been published. When you suppress something before it can be published, it’s called prior restraint. This one of the worst forms of censorship. There are exceptions to everything, of course. In the early 1970s, when fighting publication of The Pentagon Papers, which detailed the previous U.S. president’s unconstitutional and immoral behavior leading to what’s now called the American War in Vietnam, the government appealed their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and they still failed to prove a need for prior restraint. So taking action against a science-fiction game was probably not going to fly.

You might not like something — I might not like a lot of what gets printed, were I were to pay much attention — but you have to let it be published. By grabbing the cyberpunk game and claiming that this was the connection between the Mentor and the Legion of Doom and their raid on a small game company — which had not been explicitly covered in their warrant to search Mentor’s house because when they raided him, they didn’t know where he worked — they had successfully, illegally suppressed a publication. They had performed the late-Twentieth Century analog of marching in and seizing a printing press and told them to stop from preparing to publish their seditious posters that would only stir everybody up.

Years later, Steve Jackson Games published a card game called Hacker, which was a not at all veiled description of how a lot of computer crime at the time was actually managed, using a game mechanism similar to that of Steve’s masterwork game, Illuminati, which also happened to be the name of the bulletin-board system that had been seized by the U.S. Secret Service. It wasn’t a bad game, and made some money, so that’s funny.

The trial itself was short. Every day after the proceedings, Steve and the Mentor would come back from the courtroom, still dressed in their suits, and tell those of us back at the office how the trial was going. Given that the financial disaster on the other side of the raid caused Steve to lay off half of the company, and years later things were still very shaky, we were all interested.

The prosecution spent about two and a half days attacking the Secret Service before resting their case. Before the defense kicked off their side, the judge had a little chat with the agent, Tim Foley, who had led Operation Sundevil and the mayhem that came before it.

It was a made-for-TV moment. We have all kinds of wonderfully colorful language to describe the words that passed between the judge and the lead agent. My English friends might smile and say that the judge was clearly unimpressed with the gentleman in question. I remember hearing that the judge used the word “idiot” to describe the man to his face, but I wasn’t able to turn up a full transcript, so I won’t claim that here.

Happily, Joe Abernathy published a trial report in the Houston Chronicle. From his many great quotes, here’s my favorite exchange, from the third day of the proceedings.

The judge said, “Did it ever occur to you, Mr. Foley, that seizing this material could harm Steve Jackson economically?”

Tim Foley, the Secret Service agent, replied, “No, sir.”

The judge disagreed. “You actually did,” he said, “you just had no idea anybody would actually go out and hire a lawyer and sue you.”

Ouch. And through the rest of the 1990s, the FBI ended up with a clear jurisdiction over computer crime.

Looking back, though, I’m surprised to find that I have some sympathy for the Secret Service. As wrong-headed as they were — and criminal, and unethical, and immoral — in a certain way, they were right.

Going to California

The Hacker Crackdown — 4

The technical details of how the network attacked itself has been described with tremendous accuracy by Bruce Sterling.

Basically, a bunch of AT&T’s long-distance switches were running recently upgrades code with a tiny bug which caused the switches to reset themselves if two uncommon things happened at the same time.

When the switch starts up, it sends a signal to nearby switches saying, “Hello! I’m here now, and can take calls.” Its neighbors note their new companion. However, here’s the problem: if two phone calls come into switch in the same millisecond, while it is logging a “Hello!” from a new neighbor, it hits the bug and resets itself.

While the switch resets, the phone-call load on its neighbors goes up, making them more likely to get two calls at the same time. And when the crashed switch comes back up, it sends a “Hello!” into the more heavily loaded switches — which crashes them, increasing the load on their neighbors, making those further neighbors more likely to crash when the original switch’s neighbors come back up.

And the wave propagated quickly through the telephone network, crashing switches in far-away cities from the first crash, in Manhattan, even echoing back to crash switches that had previously crashed and restarted. And this went on for some time.

It was a mess. AT&T took out a full-page newspaper ad to apologize for the problem, it was that bad.

At the time, though, this kind of an explanation, even as simple as I’ve tried to make it above, was hard to approach and even harder to accept by the phone-company security people and the law-enforcement authorities of twenty-three years ago. They knew the story: hackers said they would crash the network, the raids on the Atlanta hackers turned up evidence that they knew how to crash the network, and now the network had crashed. Who crashed that first switch that caused all this nonsense? Had hackers stolen the source code, figured out the bug, and sent “Hello!” signals to a bunch of switches until one of them finally fell over?

I don’t know that we ever figured it out. Decades later, coming out of a hacker culture where the only currency was bragging rights, it’s odd that no one ever claimed responsibility for the snowballing phone switch crash of 1990. Either someone is so mortally embarrassed that they won’t talk about it, or were playing around and have no idea what they accidentally did — or hey, maybe it was really a systemic accident.

It’s likely that a set of recently upgraded switches, heavily loaded with holiday traffic, would hit the bug on their own and crash on their own. It doesn’t require the invention of evil hackers.

Evil hackers will be invented later. Don’t worry; we’ll get there.

But instead, the authorities attacked the hackers. At the time, it must have felt great, taking out hacker after hacker and finding little behind the curtains but really geeky people, mostly,  powerless in the real world.

There were other hackers, however, who in the previous ten or so years had generated a lot of currency that was not solely bragging rights, but actual, real-world currency, that you could take out of a bank and strike someone over the head with.

Two months after the crackdown saw the hacking world strike back in the most unexpected way. Or actually, maybe the authorities could’ve expected it. After all, hackers like nothing more than subverting a system by using its own tools against it.

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.

Going to California

The Hacker Crackdown — Sidebar: Cyberpunk

As a quick sidebar for the uninitiated, cyberpunk started out in the 1980s as a very specific kind of science-fiction. The easiest way to get your head around it is to think about the movie Blade Runner. That’s the cyberpunk aesthetic: high-tech low life, impossibly tall buildings with terribly poor people struggling to scrape together an existence from what the rich have cast off, hacking what they can and risking everything to forge a newer tomorrow, or even just to survive. It’s anti-corporate crime fiction fueled with paranoia and desperation.

Cyberpunk spoke to hackers for a number of reasons that I’ll come back to in a little bit, not the least of which was that the protagonist in the seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, was in fact a young hacker of networked computers, straddling the boundary between being a kid and growing into adulthood. He’s presented with a great many ethical challenges before the story’s end. It gets ugly and bloody but it stays very clever, and while there are terrific tragedies, things basically turn out okay in the end. Okay-ish.

The author of Neuromancer, William Gibson, went to see Blade Runner while working on his book, and he grieved that someone had discovered the exact aesthetic he’d been targeting before he was able to get his book out, though thankfully he pushed on through and shared it with the world. I strongly identified as “cyberpunk” in high school, when you’re supposed to identify with some group or other, though I had no one else to really bond with as a fellow cyberpunk. Even a lot of the hackers I knew at the time weren’t reading science-fiction, which may sound odd today since you’d practically get laughed out of many Bay Area social circles if you’d never heard of Neuromancer. Even if you’ve never heard of cyberpunk, my spell-checker isn’t trying to correct the word so I’ll say that today it’s reasonably well known. Still, it didn’t seem to me as though cyberpunk had a chance of going mainstream until Rolling Stone Magazine did a piece on it — it was practically a movement in some circles, by that point — in early 1987. I remember feeling very validated at the time.

Nearly a year later, a company out of the California Bay Area made the first cyberpunk role-playing game, Cyberpunk 2020, and my local game stores could not keep it in stock. The second cyberpunk game was called Shadowrun, which evolved the concept beyond its roots by combining the sort of “high-tech low life” style with the basic trappings of fantasy fiction: magic and elves and dragons and the like. Not two weeks ago from the time of this writing, a bunch of the people who worked on the original Shadowrun made a version of the game that runs on PCs and the iPad; check it out.

You might have unwittingly been exposed to cyberpunk through its degenerate clone, steampunk, which is essentially Victorian cyberpunk. In one of those involuted, “couldn’t make it up” kind of congruencies, William Gibson, who wrote Neuromancer and coined the word “cyberspace,” and Bruce Sterling, who wrote The Hacker Crackdown, co-wrote a novel called The Difference Engine, speculating about what the world might have been like in the late Nineteenth Century had Charles Babbage actually gotten the money he needed to prototype the ideas he had — actual, true-history ideas — to build what we would have recognized as the first computer, back in the 1830s. That’s the book that started steampunk, which is hugely popular today.

Now back to the story.

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.

Going to California

The Hacker Crackdown — 2.5

All things considered, Erik Bloodaxe got off easy. A short while after the authorities had packed up everything that could be used against him — and they could not have been happy about finding absolutely nothing there, after tearing his place apart — my buddy Sam got a phone call from a mutual friend, who lived across the parking lot from Sam’s place.

Please assume that I’m filtering unhelpful profanity when reporting these college-era conversations. I hope my friends can forgive me if this dialog sounds less like something they’d say, lacking some of its color.

“Hey, you’re unlikely believe this thing I need to relate to you,” said the mutual friend. “I just got a call from Bloodaxe.” They only knew him by his real name, of course. Since it adds nothing to reveal his true name, I’ll keep calling him Mr. Bloodaxe. “He wanted me to look out my window,” continued the mutual friend, “and see if there were any cop cars or anything unexpected going on around your apartment.”

“Is there?” asked Sam, probably with something more than idle concern. I imagine him scanning his room for clothes.

“No, I told him everything was cool as far as I could see, but — he just got busted! The cops came in, all kinds of cops! Took everything with a number on it, and….” And he related as much of the story as Mr. Bloodaxe had told him. “He didn’t want to call you directly. He’s really worried about his stuff.”

After reclaiming his hidden-closet stuff, Erik Bloodaxe only ended up being out some junk that didn’t mean anything to him anyway. He was never charged with a crime, and to my knowledge he wasn’t bothered any further by the authorities.

He was the most legit hacker any of us knew. So it was all the more unexpected that he was the luckiest of all the people who had authorities leveling pistols at them that day.

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.

Going to California

The Hacker Crackdown


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.

Going to California

Dancing — 4

Table of Contents

Something inside me opened up. I stepped out of myself, to a place where I could see what I’d become just as clearly as I’d been judging others.

I didn’t do schoolwork because I had no discipline. I’d never one time worked at being a good student. I’d never forced myself to do things I didn’t want to do. I only wanted to play. The times in my life when I’d done hard work — unreasonably difficult labor, which I had done — had only been in service of having fun.

All the drama with the hackers was nothing more than me throwing gasoline on my own fire because it was a fun distraction from what I was meant to be doing. I’d been happy for the disruptions. I’d graduated high school not because I was clever and my teacher was stupid, but because she’d been generous and gracious. It had been years since anyone had openly mocked me for my stutter, but I still held the words of the past against the world of the present. I hadn’t pushed hard for my dance-plus-computer ideas — engaging other people to help me experiment — because I wanted to do it all myself, even though I didn’t know how, because I wanted all the credit, all the applause.

I manufactured my fears so that I wouldn’t have to risk failure — or, more often, so that I wouldn’t have to do any work at all. My paranoia was a protective edifice of lies around the truth, and the truth was that I was lazy.

I was a like a small, sleepy goat, a kid, nearly alone in a barren field picked clean of anything to eat. The pile of crap that he had amassed behind him was fantastical, but his muscles were too weak to push any of it aside. He had no choice but to go elsewhere, and the only route open to him was up a dangerous rock face. It was intimidating, even though so many must have gone that way before him. It would have been easier had he started up the mountain with the other kids, when there’d have been safety in numbers to help one another along. Still, better late than never.

Oh, but God, the mountain was terrifying.

“Derek?” asked Lizard.

I looked up.

“You went quiet for a minute,” she said. “You okay?”

“You said I’d be okay, didn’t you?”


“Then I will be,” I said.


“Because I trust you.”

“It didn’t sound like it.”

“I do,” I said, then I corrected myself. “I should have,” I said. “I can.”

She nodded.

I felt shattered. The worst possible thing I could’ve feared had come to pass. At least, I figured, that’s one thing I’ll never have to be afraid of again.

Lizard looked away. “When you ‘knocked’ on my dorm room door that time,” she said, “it scared me, because it reminded me of my ex-boyfriend, back home. One night he wanted me, he wanted my attention so badly, he pounded on my bedroom window so hard that he shattered the glass.” She hugged herself. “Blood everywhere. It was awful. And the look in his eye—” She looked up. “—it was the look you get, sometimes.

“He was crazy. But you, you’re not him. I don’t think you’re crazy. I think you’re okay. You just have ideas.” She shrugged, and smiled. “You just need to work them out.”

“Thanks, Liz,” I said. “Thank you.”

The music played for hours. The next day, I was home.

It took me several weeks, though, to realize that I no longer stuttered.

In the two years that followed, I started working and I kept working. I did what teachers needed me to do, and I got all my basic classes out of the way. When I returned to the university, my grades were never a question. I spent all my time working. It felt good. It was a kind of dancing, and I never really stopped. I got a design degree, and nearly got a minor in Astronomy.

I did also have to learn how to work well, of course. That came later. Thankfully, it happened a long time before I shot past a hand-painted sign in a desert, leaned against a tree, saying, “CALIFORNIA”.

But first, before everything after, came the Hacker Crackdown.