Literary Freeware: Not for Commercial Use
THE HACKER CRACKDOWN
Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier
by Bruce Sterling
Preface to the Electronic Release of *The Hacker Crackdown*
Chronology of the Hacker Crackdown
Part 1: CRASHING THE SYSTEM
A Brief History of Telephony / Bell's Golden Vaporware / Universal Service
/ Wild Boys and Wire Women / The Electronic Communities / The Ungentle
Giant / The Breakup / In Defense of the System / The Crash Post- Mortem /
Landslides in Cyberspace
Part 2: THE DIGITAL UNDERGROUND
Steal This Phone / Phreaking and Hacking / The View From Under the
Floorboards / Boards: Core of the Underground / Phile Phun / The Rake's
Progress / Strongholds of the Elite / Sting Boards / Hot Potatoes / War on
the Legion / Terminus / Phile 9-1-1 / War Games / Real Cyberpunk
Part 3: LAW AND ORDER
Crooked Boards / The World's Biggest Hacker Bust / Teach Them a Lesson /
The U.S. Secret Service / The Secret Service Battles the Boodlers / A Walk
Downtown / FCIC: The Cutting-Edge Mess / Cyberspace Rangers / FLETC:
Training the Hacker-Trackers
Part 4: THE CIVIL LIBERTARIANS
NuPrometheus + FBI = Grateful Dead / Whole Earth + Computer Revolution =
WELL / Phiber Runs Underground and Acid Spikes the Well / The Trial of
Knight Lightning / Shadowhawk Plummets to Earth / Kyrie in the
Confessional / $79,499 / A Scholar Investigates / Computers, Freedom, and
Electronic Afterword to *The Hacker Crackdown,* New Years' Day 1994
Preface to the Electronic Release of *The Hacker Crackdown*
January 1, 1994 -- Austin, Texas
Hi, I'm Bruce Sterling, the author of this electronic book.
Out in the traditional world of print, *The Hacker Crackdown* is ISBN
0-553-08058-X, and is formally catalogued by the Library of Congress as
"1. Computer crimes -- United States. 2. Telephone -- United States --
Corrupt practices. 3. Programming (Electronic computers) -- United
States -- Corrupt practices." 'Corrupt practices,' I always get a kick
out of that description. Librarians are very ingenious people.
The paperback is ISBN 0-553-56370-X. If you go and buy a print
version of *The Hacker Crackdown,* an action I encourage heartily, you may
notice that in the front of the book, beneath the copyright notice --
"Copyright (C) 1992 by Bruce Sterling" -- it has this little block of
printed legal boilerplate from the publisher. It says, and I quote:
"No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or
by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording,
or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in
writing from the publisher. For information address: Bantam Books."
This is a pretty good disclaimer, as such disclaimers go. I collect
intellectual-property disclaimers, and I've seen dozens of them, and this
one is at least pretty straightforward. In this narrow and particular
case, however, it isn't quite accurate. Bantam Books puts that disclaimer
on every book they publish, but Bantam Books does not, in fact, own the
electronic rights to this book. I do, because of certain extensive
contract maneuverings my agent and I went through before this book was
written. I want to give those electronic publishing rights away through
certain not-for-profit channels, and I've convinced Bantam that this is a
Since Bantam has seen fit to peacably agree to this scheme of mine,
Bantam Books is not going to fuss about this. Provided you don't try to
sell the book, they are not going to bother you for what you do with the
electronic copy of this book. If you want to check this out personally,
you can ask them; they're at 1540 Broadway NY NY 10036. However, if you
were so foolish as to print this book and start retailing it for money in
violation of my copyright and the commercial interests of Bantam Books,
then Bantam, a part of the gigantic Bertelsmann multinational publishing
combine, would roust some of their heavy-duty attorneys out of hibernation
and crush you like a bug. This is only to be expected. I didn't write
this book so that you could make money out of it. If anybody is gonna
make money out of this book, it's gonna be me and my publisher.
My publisher deserves to make money out of this book. Not only did
the folks at Bantam Books commission me to write the book, and pay me a
hefty sum to do so, but they bravely printed, in text, an electronic
document the reproduction of which was once alleged to be a federal
felony. Bantam Books and their numerous attorneys were very brave and
forthright about this book. Furthermore, my former editor at Bantam
Books, Betsy Mitchell, genuinely cared about this project, and worked hard
on it, and had a lot of wise things to say about the manuscript. Betsy
deserves genuine credit for this book, credit that editors too rarely get.
The critics were very kind to *The Hacker Crackdown,* and
commercially the book has done well. On the other hand, I didn't write
this book in order to squeeze every last nickel and dime out of the mitts
of impoverished sixteen-year-old cyberpunk high-school-students.
Teenagers don't have any money -- (no, not even enough for the six- dollar
*Hacker Crackdown* paperback, with its attractive bright-red cover and
useful index). That's a major reason why teenagers sometimes succumb to
the temptation to do things they shouldn't, such as swiping my books out
of libraries. Kids: this one is all yours, all right? Go give the print
version back. *8-)
Well-meaning, public-spirited civil libertarians don't have much
money, either. And it seems almost criminal to snatch cash out of the
hands of America's direly underpaid electronic law enforcement community.
If you're a computer cop, a hacker, or an electronic civil liberties
activist, you are the target audience for this book. I wrote this book
because I wanted to help you, and help other people understand you and
your unique, uhm, problems. I wrote this book to aid your activities, and
to contribute to the public discussion of important political issues. In
giving the text away in this fashion, I am directly contributing to the
book's ultimate aim: to help civilize cyberspace.
Information *wants* to be free. And the information inside this book
longs for freedom with a peculiar intensity. I genuinely believe that the
natural habitat of this book is inside an electronic network. That may
not be the easiest direct method to generate revenue for the book's
author, but that doesn't matter; this is where this book belongs by its
nature. I've written other books -- plenty of other books -- and I'll
write more and I am writing more, but this one is special. I am making
*The Hacker Crackdown* available electronically as widely as I can
conveniently manage, and if you like the book, and think it is useful,
then I urge you to do the same with it.
You can copy this electronic book. Copy the heck out of it, be my
guest, and give those copies to anybody who wants them. The nascent world
of cyberspace is full of sysadmins, teachers, trainers, cybrarians,
netgurus, and various species of cybernetic activist. If you're one of
those people, I know about you, and I know the hassle you go through to
try to help people learn about the electronic frontier. I hope that
possessing this book in electronic form will lessen your troubles.
Granted, this treatment of our electronic social spectrum is not the
ultimate in academic rigor. And politically, it has something to offend
and trouble almost everyone. But hey, I'm told it's readable, and at
least the price is right.
You can upload the book onto bulletin board systems, or Internet
nodes, or electronic discussion groups. Go right ahead and do that, I am
giving you express permission right now. Enjoy yourself.
You can put the book on disks and give the disks away, as long as you
don't take any money for it.
But this book is not public domain. You can't copyright it in your
own name. I own the copyright. Attempts to pirate this book and make
money from selling it may involve you in a serious litigative snarl.
Believe me, for the pittance you might wring out of such an action, it's
really not worth it. This book don't "belong" to you. In an odd but very
genuine way, I feel it doesn't "belong" to me, either. It's a book about
the people of cyberspace, and distributing it in this way is the best way
I know to actually make this information available, freely and easily, to
all the people of cyberspace -- including people far outside the borders
of the United States, who otherwise may never have a chance to see any
edition of the book, and who may perhaps learn something useful from this
strange story of distant, obscure, but portentous events in so-called
This electronic book is now literary freeware. It now belongs to
the emergent realm of alternative information economics. You have no
right to make this electronic book part of the conventional flow of
commerce. Let it be part of the flow of knowledge: there's a difference.
I've divided the book into four sections, so that it is less ungainly for
upload and download; if there's a section of particular relevance to you
and your colleagues, feel free to reproduce that one and skip the rest.
Just make more when you need them, and give them to whoever might
Now have fun.
Bruce Sterling -- email@example.com
CHRONOLOGY OF THE HACKER CRACKDOWN
1865 U.S. Secret Service (USSS) founded.
1876 Alexander Graham Bell invents telephone.
1878 First teenage males flung off phone system by enraged authorities.
1939 "Futurian" science-fiction group raided by Secret Service.
1971 Yippie phone phreaks start YIPL/TAP magazine.
1972 *Ramparts* magazine seized in blue-box rip-off scandal.
1978 Ward Christenson and Randy Suess create first personal computer
bulletin board system.
1982 William Gibson coins term "cyberspace."
1982 "414 Gang" raided.
1983-1983 AT&T dismantled in divestiture.
1984 Congress passes Comprehensive Crime Control Act giving USSS
jurisdiction over credit card fraud and computer fraud.
1984 "Legion of Doom" formed.
1984. *2600: The Hacker Quarterly* founded.
1984. *Whole Earth Software Catalog* published.
1985. First police "sting" bulletin board systems established.
1985. Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link computer conference (WELL) goes
1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act passed.
1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act passed.
1987 Chicago prosecutors form Computer Fraud and Abuse Task Force.
July. Secret Service covertly videotapes "SummerCon" hacker convention.
September. "Prophet" cracks BellSouth AIMSX computer network and
downloads E911 Document to his own computer and to Jolnet.
September. AT&T Corporate Information Security informed of Prophet's
October. Bellcore Security informed of Prophet's action.
January. Prophet uploads E911 Document to Knight Lightning.
February 25. Knight Lightning publishes E911Document in *Phrack*
May. Chicago Task Force raids and arrests "Kyrie."
June. "NuPrometheus League" distributes Apple Computer proprietary
June 13. Florida probation office crossed with phone-sex line in
July. "Fry Guy" raided by USSS and Chicago Computer Fraud and Abuse Task
July. Secret Service raids "Prophet," "Leftist," and "Urvile" in Georgia.
January 15. Martin Luther King Day Crash strikes AT&T long-distance
January 18-19 Chicago Task Force raids Knight Lightning in St. Louis.
January 24. USSS and New York State Police raid "Phiber Optik," "Acid
Phreak," and "Scorpion" in New York City.
February 1. USSS raids "Terminus" in Maryland.
February 3. Chicago Task Force raids Richard Andrews' home.
February 6. Chicago Task Force raids Richard Andrews' business.
February 6. USSS arrests Terminus, Prophet, Leftist, and Urvile.
February 9. Chicago Task Force arrests Knight Lightning.
February 20. AT&T Security shuts down public-access "attctc" computer in
February 21. Chicago Task Force raids Robert Izenberg in Austin.
March 1. Chicago Task Force raids Steve Jackson Games, Inc., "Mentor,"
and "Erik Bloodaxe" in Austin.
May 7,8,9. USSS and Arizona Organized Crime and Racketeering Bureau
conduct "Operation Sundevil" raids in Cincinnatti, Detroit, Los Angeles,
Miami, Newark, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Tucson, San Diego, San Jose,
and San Francisco.
May. FBI interviews John Perry Barlow re NuPrometheus case.
June. Mitch Kapor and Barlow found Electronic Frontier Foundation;
Barlow publishes *Crime and Puzzlement* manifesto.
July 24-27. Trial of Knight Lightning.
February. CPSR Roundtable in Washington, D.C.
March 25-28. Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in San Francisco.
May 1. Electronic Frontier Foundation, Steve Jackson, and others file
suit against members of Chicago Task Force.
July 1-2. Switching station phone software crash affects Washington, Los
Angeles, Pittsburgh, San Francisco.
September 17. AT&T phone crash affects New York City and three airports.
This is a book about cops, and wild teenage whiz- kids, and lawyers,
and hairy-eyed anarchists, and industrial technicians, and hippies, and
high-tech millionaires, and game hobbyists, and computer security experts,
and Secret Service agents, and grifters, and thieves.
This book is about the electronic frontier of the 1990s.
It concerns activities that take place inside computers and
over telephone lines.
A science fiction writer coined the useful term "cyberspace" in
1982. But the territory in question, the electronic frontier, is about a
hundred and thirty years old. Cyberspace is the "place" where a telephone
conversation appears to occur. Not inside your actual phone, the plastic
device on your desk. Not inside the other person's phone, in some other
city. *The place between* the phones. The indefinite place *out there,*
where the two of you, two human beings, actually meet and communicate.
Although it is not exactly "real," "cyberspace" is a genuine place.
Things happen there that have very genuine consequences. This "place" is
not "real," but it is serious, it is earnest. Tens of thousands of people
have dedicated their lives to it, to the public service of public
communication by wire and electronics.
People have worked on this "frontier" for generations now. Some
people became rich and famous from their efforts there. Some just played
in it, as hobbyists. Others soberly pondered it, and wrote about it, and
regulated it, and negotiated over it in international forums, and sued one
another about it, in gigantic, epic court battles that lasted for years.
And almost since the beginning, some people have committed crimes in this
But in the past twenty years, this electrical "space," which was once
thin and dark and one-dimensional -- little more than a narrow
speaking-tube, stretching from phone to phone -- has flung itself open
like a gigantic jack-in-the-box. Light has flooded upon it, the eerie
light of the glowing computer screen. This dark electric netherworld has
become a vast flowering electronic landscape. Since the 1960s, the world
of the telephone has cross-bred itself with computers and television, and
though there is still no substance to cyberspace, nothing you can handle,
it has a strange kind of physicality now. It makes good sense today to
talk of cyberspace as a place all its own.
Because people live in it now. Not just a few people, not just a few
technicians and eccentrics, but thousands of people, quite normal people.
And not just for a little while, either, but for hours straight, over
weeks, and months, and years. Cyberspace today is a "Net," a "Matrix,"
international in scope and growing swiftly and steadily. It's growing in
size, and wealth, and political importance.
People are making entire careers in modern cyberspace. Scientists
and technicians, of course; they've been there for twenty years now. But
increasingly, cyberspace is filling with journalists and doctors and
lawyers and artists and clerks. Civil servants make their careers there
now, "on-line" in vast government data-banks; and so do spies, industrial,
political, and just plain snoops; and so do police, at least a few of them.
And there are children living there now.
People have met there and been married there. There are entire living
communities in cyberspace today; chattering, gossipping, planning,
conferring and scheming, leaving one another voice-mail and electronic
mail, giving one another big weightless chunks of valuable data, both
legitimate and illegitimate. They busily pass one another computer
software and the occasional festering computer virus.
We do not really understand how to live in cyberspace yet. We are
feeling our way into it, blundering about. That is not surprising. Our
lives in the physical world, the "real" world, are also far from perfect,
despite a lot more practice. Human lives, real lives, are imperfect by
their nature, and there are human beings in cyberspace. The way we live
in cyberspace is a funhouse mirror of the way we live in the real world.
We take both our advantages and our troubles with us.
This book is about trouble in cyberspace. Specifically, this book
is about certain strange events in the year 1990, an unprecedented and
startling year for the the growing world of computerized communications.
In 1990 there came a nationwide crackdown on illicit computer
hackers, with arrests, criminal charges, one dramatic show-trial, several
guilty pleas, and huge confiscations of data and equipment all over the
The Hacker Crackdown of 1990 was larger, better organized, more
deliberate, and more resolute than any previous effort in the brave new
world of computer crime. The U.S. Secret Service, private telephone
security, and state and local law enforcement groups across the country
all joined forces in a determined attempt to break the back of America's
electronic underground. It was a fascinating effort, with very mixed
The Hacker Crackdown had another unprecedented effect; it spurred the
creation, within "the computer community," of the Electronic Frontier
Foundation, a new and very odd interest group, fiercely dedicated to the
establishment and preservation of electronic civil liberties. The
crackdown, remarkable in itself, has created a melee of debate over
electronic crime, punishment, freedom of the press, and issues of search
and seizure. Politics has entered cyberspace. Where people go, politics
This is the story of the people of cyberspace.
PART ONE: Crashing the System
On January 15, 1990, AT&T's long-distance telephone switching system
This was a strange, dire, huge event. Sixty thousand people lost
their telephone service completely. During the nine long hours of frantic
effort that it took to restore service, some seventy million telephone
calls went uncompleted.
Losses of service, known as "outages" in the telco trade, are a
known and accepted hazard of the telephone business. Hurricanes hit, and
phone cables get snapped by the thousands. Earthquakes wrench through
buried fiber-optic lines. Switching stations catch fire and burn to the
ground. These things do happen. There are contingency plans for them,
and decades of experience in dealing with them. But the Crash of January
15 was unprecedented. It was unbelievably huge, and it occurred for no
apparent physical reason.
The crash started on a Monday afternoon in a single switching-station
in Manhattan. But, unlike any merely physical damage, it spread and
spread. Station after station across America collapsed in a chain
reaction, until fully half of AT&T's network had gone haywire and the
remaining half was hard-put to handle the overflow.
Within nine hours, AT&T software engineers more or less understood
what had caused the crash. Replicating the problem exactly, poring over
software line by line, took them a couple of weeks. But because it was
hard to understand technically, the full truth of the matter and its
implications were not widely and thoroughly aired and explained. The root
cause of the crash remained obscure, surrounded by rumor and fear.
The crash was a grave corporate embarrassment. The "culprit" was a
bug in AT&T's own software -- not the sort of admission the
telecommunications giant wanted to make, especially in the face of
increasing competition. Still, the truth *was* told, in the baffling
technical terms necessary to explain it.
Somehow the explanation failed to persuade American law enforcement
officials and even telephone corporate security personnel. These people
were not technical experts or software wizards, and they had their own
suspicions about the cause of this disaster.
The police and telco security had important sources of information
denied to mere software engineers. They had informants in the computer
underground and years of experience in dealing with high-tech rascality
that seemed to grow ever more sophisticated. For years they had been
expecting a direct and savage attack against the American national
telephone system. And with the Crash of January 15 -- the first month of
a new, high-tech decade -- their predictions, fears, and suspicions seemed
at last to have entered the real world. A world where the telephone
system had not merely crashed, but, quite likely, *been* crashed -- by
The crash created a large dark cloud of suspicion that would color
certain people's assumptions and actions for months. The fact that it
took place in the realm of software was suspicious on its face. The fact
that it occurred on Martin Luther King Day, still the most politically
touchy of American holidays, made it more suspicious yet.
The Crash of January 15 gave the Hacker Crackdown its sense
of edge and its sweaty urgency. It made people, powerful people in
positions of public authority, willing to believe the worst. And, most
fatally, it helped to give investigators a willingness to take extreme
measures and the determination to preserve almost total secrecy.
An obscure software fault in an aging switching system in New York
was to lead to a chain reaction of legal and constitutional trouble all
across the country.
Like the crash in the telephone system, this chain reaction was ready
and waiting to happen. During the 1980s, the American legal system was
extensively patched to deal with the novel issues of computer crime.
There was, for instance, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986
(eloquently described as "a stinking mess" by a prominent law enforcement
official). And there was the draconian Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of
1986, passed unanimously by the United States Senate, which later would
reveal a large number of flaws. Extensive, well- meant efforts had been
made to keep the legal system up to date. But in the day-to-day grind of
the real world, even the most elegant software tends to crumble and
suddenly reveal its hidden bugs.
Like the advancing telephone system, the American legal system was
certainly not ruined by its temporary crash; but for those caught under
the weight of the collapsing system, life became a series of blackouts and
In order to understand why these weird events occurred, both in the
world of technology and in the world of law, it's not enough to understand
the merely technical problems. We will get to those; but first and
foremost, we must try to understand the telephone, and the business of
telephones, and the community of human beings that telephones have
Technologies have life cycles, like cities do, like institutions do,
like laws and governments do.
The first stage of any technology is the Question Mark, often known
as the "Golden Vaporware" stage. At this early point, the technology is
only a phantom, a mere gleam in the inventor's eye. One such inventor was
a speech teacher and electrical tinkerer named Alexander Graham Bell.
Bell's early inventions, while ingenious, failed to move the world.
In 1863, the teenage Bell and his brother Melville made an artificial
talking mechanism out of wood, rubber, gutta-percha, and tin. This weird
device had a rubber-covered "tongue" made of movable wooden segments, with
vibrating rubber "vocal cords," and rubber "lips" and "cheeks." While
Melville puffed a bellows into a tin tube, imitating the lungs, young Alec
Bell would manipulate the "lips," "teeth," and "tongue," causing the thing
to emit high-pitched falsetto gibberish.
Another would-be technical breakthrough was the Bell "phonautograph"
of 1874, actually made out of a human cadaver's ear. Clamped into place
on a tripod, this grisly gadget drew sound-wave images on smoked glass
through a thin straw glued to its vibrating earbones.
By 1875, Bell had learned to produce audible sounds - - ugly shrieks
and squawks -- by using magnets, diaphragms, and electrical current.
Most "Golden Vaporware" technologies go nowhere.
But the second stage of technology is the Rising Star, or, the "Goofy
Prototype," stage. The telephone, Bell's most ambitious gadget yet,
reached this stage on March 10, 1876. On that great day, Alexander Graham
Bell became the first person to transmit intelligible human speech
electrically. As it happened, young Professor Bell, industriously
tinkering in his Boston lab, had spattered his trousers with acid. His
assistant, Mr. Watson, heard his cry for help -- over Bell's experimental
audio- telegraph. This was an event without precedent.
Technologies in their "Goofy Prototype" stage rarely work very well.
They're experimental, and therefore half- baked and rather frazzled. The
prototype may be attractive and novel, and it does look as if it ought to
be good for something-or-other. But nobody, including the inventor, is
quite sure what. Inventors, and speculators, and pundits may have very
firm ideas about its potential use, but those ideas are often very wrong.
The natural habitat of the Goofy Prototype is in trade shows and in
the popular press. Infant technologies need publicity and investment
money like a tottering calf need milk. This was very true of Bell's
machine. To raise research and development money, Bell toured with his
device as a stage attraction.
Contemporary press reports of the stage debut of the telephone
showed pleased astonishment mixed with considerable dread. Bell's stage
telephone was a large wooden box with a crude speaker-nozzle, the whole
contraption about the size and shape of an overgrown Brownie camera. Its
buzzing steel soundplate, pumped up by powerful electromagnets, was loud
enough to fill an auditorium. Bell's assistant Mr. Watson, who could
manage on the keyboards fairly well, kicked in by playing the organ from
distant rooms, and, later, distant cities. This feat was considered
marvellous, but very eerie indeed.
Bell's original notion for the telephone, an idea promoted for a
couple of years, was that it would become a mass medium. We might
recognize Bell's idea today as something close to modern "cable radio."
Telephones at a central source would transmit music, Sunday sermons, and
important public speeches to a paying network of wired-up subscribers.
At the time, most people thought this notion made good sense. In
fact, Bell's idea was workable. In Hungary, this philosophy of the
telephone was successfully put into everyday practice. In Budapest, for
decades, from 1893 until after World War I, there was a government-run
information service called "Telefon Hirmondo=." Hirmondo= was a
centralized source of news and entertainment and culture, including stock
reports, plays, concerts, and novels read aloud. At certain hours of the
day, the phone would ring, you would plug in a loudspeaker for the use of
the family, and Telefon Hirmondo= would be on the air -- or rather, on the
Hirmondo= is dead tech today, but Hirmondo= might be considered a
spiritual ancestor of the modern telephone-accessed computer data
services, such as CompuServe, GEnie or Prodigy. The principle behind
Hirmondo= is also not too far from computer "bulletin- board systems" or
BBS's, which arrived in the late 1970s, spread rapidly across America, and
will figure largely in this book.
We are used to using telephones for individual person-to-person
speech, because we are used to the Bell system. But this was just one
possibility among many. Communication networks are very flexible and
protean, especially when their hardware becomes sufficiently advanced.
They can be put to all kinds of uses. And they have been -- and they will
Bell's telephone was bound for glory, but this was a combination of
political decisions, canny infighting in court, inspired industrial
leadership, receptive local conditions and outright good luck. Much the
same is true of communications systems today.
As Bell and his backers struggled to install their newfangled system
in the real world of nineteenth-century New England, they had to fight
against skepticism and industrial rivalry. There was already a strong
electrical communications network present in America: the telegraph. The
head of the Western Union telegraph system dismissed Bell's prototype as
"an electrical toy" and refused to buy the rights to Bell's patent. The
telephone, it seemed, might be all right as a parlor entertainment -- but
not for serious business.
Telegrams, unlike mere telephones, left a permanent physical record
of their messages. Telegrams, unlike telephones, could be answered
whenever the recipient had time and convenience. And the telegram had a
much longer distance-range than Bell's early telephone. These factors
made telegraphy seem a much more sound and businesslike technology -- at
least to some.
The telegraph system was huge, and well-entrenched. In 1876, the
United States had 214,000 miles of telegraph wire, and 8500 telegraph
offices. There were specialized telegraphs for businesses and stock
traders, government, police and fire departments. And Bell's "toy" was
best known as a stage-magic musical device.
The third stage of technology is known as the "Cash Cow" stage. In
the "cash cow" stage, a technology finds its place in the world, and
matures, and becomes settled and productive. After a year or so,
Alexander Graham Bell and his capitalist backers concluded that eerie
music piped from nineteenth-century cyberspace was not the real
selling-point of his invention. Instead, the telephone was about speech
-- individual, personal speech, the human voice, human conversation and
human interaction. The telephone was not to be managed from any
centralized broadcast center. It was to be a personal, intimate
When you picked up a telephone, you were not absorbing the cold
output of a machine -- you were speaking to another human being. Once
people realized this, their instinctive dread of the telephone as an
eerie, unnatural device, swiftly vanished. A "telephone call" was not a
"call" from a "telephone" itself, but a call from another human being,
someone you would generally know and recognize. The real point was not
what the machine could do for you (or to you), but what you yourself, a
person and citizen, could do *through* the machine. This decision on the
part of the young Bell Company was absolutely vital.
The first telephone networks went up around Boston - - mostly among
the technically curious and the well-to-do (much the same segment of the
American populace that, a hundred years later, would be buying personal
computers). Entrenched backers of the telegraph continued to scoff.
But in January 1878, a disaster made the telephone famous. A train
crashed in Tarriffville, Connecticut. Forward-looking doctors in the
nearby city of Hartford had had Bell's "speaking telephone" installed. An
alert local druggist was able to telephone an entire community of local
doctors, who rushed to the site to give aid. The disaster, as disasters
do, aroused intense press coverage. The phone had proven its usefulness in
the real world.
After Tarriffville, the telephone network spread like crabgrass. By
1890 it was all over New England. By '93, out to Chicago. By '97, into
Minnesota, Nebraska and Texas. By 1904 it was all over the continent.
The telephone had become a mature technology. Professor Bell (now
generally known as "Dr. Bell" despite his lack of a formal degree) became
quite wealthy. He lost interest in the tedious day-to-day business muddle
of the booming telephone network, and gratefully returned his attention to
creatively hacking-around in his various laboratories, which were now much
larger, better- ventilated, and gratifyingly better-equipped. Bell was
never to have another great inventive success, though his speculations and
prototypes anticipated fiber-optic transmission, manned flight, sonar,
hydrofoil ships, tetrahedral construction, and Montessori education. The
"decibel," the standard scientific measure of sound intensity, was named
Not all Bell's vaporware notions were inspired. He was fascinated by
human eugenics. He also spent many years developing a weird personal
system of astrophysics in which gravity did not exist.
Bell was a definite eccentric. He was something of a hypochondriac,
and throughout his life he habitually stayed up until four A.M., refusing
to rise before noon. But Bell had accomplished a great feat; he was an
idol of millions and his influence, wealth, and great personal charm,
combined with his eccentricity, made him something of a loose cannon on
deck. Bell maintained a thriving scientific salon in his winter mansion
in Washington, D.C., which gave him considerable backstage influence in
governmental and scientific circles. He was a major financial backer of
the the magazines *Science* and *National Geographic,* both still
flourishing today as important organs of the American scientific
Bell's companion Thomas Watson, similarly wealthy and similarly odd,
became the ardent political disciple of a 19th-century science-fiction
writer and would-be social reformer, Edward Bellamy. Watson also trod the
boards briefly as a Shakespearian actor.
There would never be another Alexander Graham Bell, but in years to
come there would be surprising numbers of people like him. Bell was a
prototype of the high-tech entrepreneur. High-tech entrepreneurs will
play a very prominent role in this book: not merely as technicians and
businessmen, but as pioneers of the technical frontier, who can carry the
power and prestige they derive from high-technology into the political and
Like later entrepreneurs, Bell was fierce in defense of his own
technological territory. As the telephone began to flourish, Bell was
soon involved in violent lawsuits in the defense of his patents. Bell's
Boston lawyers were excellent, however, and Bell himself, as an elecution
teacher and gifted public speaker, was a devastatingly effective legal
witness. In the eighteen years of Bell's patents, the Bell company was
involved in six hundred separate lawsuits. The legal records printed
filled 149 volumes. The Bell Company won every single suit.
After Bell's exclusive patents expired, rival telephone companies
sprang up all over America. Bell's company, American Bell Telephone, was
soon in deep trouble. In 1907, American Bell Telephone fell into the
hands of the rather sinister J.P. Morgan financial cartel, robber-baron
speculators who dominated Wall Street.
At this point, history might have taken a different turn. American
might well have been served forever by a patchwork of locally owned
telephone companies. Many state politicians and local businessmen
considered this an excellent solution.
But the new Bell holding company, American Telephone and Telegraph or
AT&T, put in a new man at the helm, a visionary industrialist named
Theodore Vail. Vail, a former Post Office manager, understood large
organizations and had an innate feeling for the nature of large-scale
communications. Vail quickly saw to it that AT&T seized the technological
edge once again. The Pupin and Campbell "loading coil," and the deForest
"audion," are both extinct technology today, but in 1913 they gave Vail's
company the best *long-distance* lines ever built. By controlling
long-distance -- the links between, and over, and above the smaller local
phone companies -- AT&T swiftly gained the whip-hand over them, and was
soon devouring them right and left.
Vail plowed the profits back into research and development, starting
the Bell tradition of huge-scale and brilliant industrial research.
Technically and financially, AT&T gradually steamrollered the
opposition. Independent telephone companies never became entirely
extinct, and hundreds of them flourish today. But Vail's AT&T became the
supreme communications company. At one point, Vail's AT&T bought Western
Union itself, the very company that had derided Bell's telephone as a
"toy." Vail thoroughly reformed Western Union's hidebound business along
his modern principles; but when the federal government grew anxious at
this centralization of power, Vail politely gave Western Union back.
This centralizing process was not unique. Very similar events had
happened in American steel, oil, and railroads. But AT&T, unlike the
other companies, was to remain supreme. The monopoly robber-barons of
those other industries were humbled and shattered by government
Vail, the former Post Office official, was quite willing to
accommodate the US government; in fact he would forge an active alliance
with it. AT&T would become almost a wing of the American government,
almost another Post Office -- though not quite. AT&T would willingly
submit to federal regulation, but in return, it would use the government's
regulators as its own police, who would keep out competitors and assure
the Bell system's profits and preeminence.
This was the second birth -- the political birth -- of the American
telephone system. Vail's arrangement was to persist, with vast success,
for many decades, until 1982. His system was an odd kind of American
industrial socialism. It was born at about the same time as Leninist
Communism, and it lasted almost as long -- and, it must be admitted, to
considerably better effect.
Vail's system worked. Except perhaps for aerospace, there has been
no technology more thoroughly dominated by Americans than the telephone.
The telephone was seen from the beginning as a quintessentially American
technology. Bell's policy, and the policy of Theodore Vail, was a
profoundly democratic policy of *universal access.* Vail's famous
corporate slogan, "One Policy, One System, Universal Service," was a
political slogan, with a very American ring to it.
The American telephone was not to become the specialized tool of
government or business, but a general public utility. At first, it was
true, only the wealthy could afford private telephones, and Bell's company
pursued the business markets primarily. The American phone system was a
capitalist effort, meant to make money; it was not a charity. But from
the first, almost all communities with telephone service had public
telephones. And many stores -- especially drugstores -- offered public
use of their phones. You might not own a telephone -- but you could
always get into the system, if you really needed to.
There was nothing inevitable about this decision to make telephones
"public" and "universal." Vail's system involved a profound act of trust
in the public. This decision was a political one, informed by the basic
values of the American republic. The situation might have been very
different; and in other countries, under other systems, it certainly was.
Joseph Stalin, for instance, vetoed plans for a Soviet phone system
soon after the Bolshevik revolution. Stalin was certain that publicly
accessible telephones would become instruments of anti-Soviet
counterrevolution and conspiracy. (He was probably right.) When
telephones did arrive in the Soviet Union, they would be instruments of
Party authority, and always heavily tapped. (Alexander Solzhenitsyn's
prison-camp novel *The First Circle* describes efforts to develop a phone
system more suited to Stalinist purposes.)
France, with its tradition of rational centralized government, had
fought bitterly even against the electric telegraph, which seemed to the
French entirely too anarchical and frivolous. For decades, nineteenth-
century France communicated via the "visual telegraph," a nation-spanning,
government-owned semaphore system of huge stone towers that signalled from
hilltops, across vast distances, with big windmill-like arms. In 1846,
one Dr. Barbay, a semaphore enthusiast, memorably uttered an early version
of what might be called "the security expert's argument" against the open
"No, the electric telegraph is not a sound invention. It will always
be at the mercy of the slightest disruption, wild youths, drunkards, bums,
etc.... The electric telegraph meets those destructive elements with only
a few meters of wire over which supervision is impossible. A single man
could, without being seen, cut the telegraph wires leading to Paris, and
in twenty-four hours cut in ten different places the wires of the same
line, without being arrested. The visual telegraph, on the contrary, has
its towers, its high walls, its gates well-guarded from inside by strong
armed men. Yes, I declare, substitution of the electric telegraph for the
visual one is a dreadful measure, a truly idiotic act."
Dr. Barbay and his high-security stone machines were eventually
unsuccessful, but his argument -- that communication exists for the safety
and convenience of the state, and must be carefully protected from the
wild boys and the gutter rabble who might want to crash the system --
would be heard again and again.
When the French telephone system finally did arrive, its snarled
inadequacy was to be notorious. Devotees of the American Bell System
often recommended a trip to France, for skeptics.
In Edwardian Britain, issues of class and privacy were a
ball-and-chain for telephonic progress. It was considered outrageous that
anyone -- any wild fool off the street -- could simply barge bellowing
into one's office or home, preceded only by the ringing of a telephone
bell. In Britain, phones were tolerated for the use of business, but
private phones tended be stuffed away into closets, smoking rooms, or
servants' quarters. Telephone operators were resented in Britain because
they did not seem to "know their place." And no one of breeding would
print a telephone number on a business card; this seemed a crass attempt
to make the acquaintance of strangers.
But phone access in America was to become a popular right; something
like universal suffrage, only more so. American women could not yet vote
when the phone system came through; yet from the beginning American women
doted on the telephone. This "feminization" of the American telephone was
often commented on by foreigners. Phones in America were not censored or
stiff or formalized; they were social, private, intimate, and domestic.
In America, Mother's Day is by far the busiest day of the year for the
The early telephone companies, and especially AT&T, were among the
foremost employers of American women. They employed the daughters of the
American middle-class in great armies: in 1891, eight thousand women; by
1946, almost a quarter of a million. Women seemed to enjoy telephone
work; it was respectable, it was steady, it paid fairly well as women's
work went, and -- not least -- it seemed a genuine contribution to the
social good of the community. Women found Vail's ideal of public service
attractive. This was especially true in rural areas, where women
operators, running extensive rural party- lines, enjoyed considerable
social power. The operator knew everyone on the party-line, and everyone
Although Bell himself was an ardent suffragist, the telephone company
did not employ women for the sake of advancing female liberation. AT&T
did this for sound commercial reasons. The first telephone operators of
the Bell system were not women, but teenage American boys. They were
telegraphic messenger boys (a group about to be rendered technically
obsolescent), who swept up around the phone office, dunned customers for
bills, and made phone connections on the switchboard, all on the cheap.
Within the very first year of operation, 1878, Bell's company learned
a sharp lesson about combining teenage boys and telephone switchboards.
Putting teenage boys in charge of the phone system brought swift and
consistent disaster. Bell's chief engineer described them as "Wild
Indians." The boys were openly rude to customers. They talked back to
subscribers, saucing off, uttering facetious remarks, and generally giving
lip. The rascals took Saint Patrick's Day off without permission. And
worst of all they played clever tricks with the switchboard plugs:
disconnecting calls, crossing lines so that customers found themselves
talking to strangers, and so forth.
This combination of power, technical mastery, and effective anonymity
seemed to act like catnip on teenage boys.
This wild-kid-on-the-wires phenomenon was not confined to the USA;
from the beginning, the same was true of the British phone system. An
early British commentator kindly remarked: "No doubt boys in their teens
found the work not a little irksome, and it is also highly probable that
under the early conditions of employment the adventurous and inquisitive
spirits of which the average healthy boy of that age is possessed, were
not always conducive to the best attention being given to the wants of the
So the boys were flung off the system -- or at least, deprived of
control of the switchboard. But the "adventurous and inquisitive spirits"
of the teenage boys would be heard from in the world of telephony, again
The fourth stage in the technological life-cycle is death: "the
Dog," dead tech. The telephone has so far avoided this fate. On the
contrary, it is thriving, still spreading, still evolving, and at
The telephone has achieved a rare and exalted state for a
technological artifact: it has become a *household object.* The
telephone, like the clock, like pen and paper, like kitchen utensils and
running water, has become a technology that is visible only by its
absence. The telephone is technologically transparent. The global
telephone system is the largest and most complex machine in the world, yet
it is easy to use. More remarkable yet, the telephone is almost entirely
physically safe for the user.
For the average citizen in the 1870s, the telephone was weirder,
more shocking, more "high-tech" and harder to comprehend, than the most
outrageous stunts of advanced computing for us Americans in the 1990s. In
trying to understand what is happening to us today, with our
bulletin-board systems, direct overseas dialling, fiber- optic
transmissions, computer viruses, hacking stunts, and a vivid tangle of new
laws and new crimes, it is important to realize that our society has been
through a similar challenge before -- and that, all in all, we did rather
well by it.
Bell's stage telephone seemed bizarre at first. But the sensations
of weirdness vanished quickly, once people began to hear the familiar
voices of relatives and friends, in their own homes on their own
telephones. The telephone changed from a fearsome high-tech totem to an
everyday pillar of human community.
This has also happened, and is still happening, to computer networks.
Computer networks such as NSFnet, BITnet, USENET, JANET, are technically
advanced, intimidating, and much harder to use than telephones. Even the
popular, commercial computer networks, such as GEnie, Prodigy, and
CompuServe, cause much head-scratching and have been described as
"user-hateful." Nevertheless they too are changing from fancy high-tech
items into everyday sources of human community.
The words "community" and "communication" have the same root.
Wherever you put a communications network, you put a community as well.
And whenever you *take away* that network -- confiscate it, outlaw it,
crash it, raise its price beyond affordability -- then you hurt that
Communities will fight to defend themselves. People will fight
harder and more bitterly to defend their communities, than they will fight
to defend their own individual selves. And this is very true of the
"electronic community" that arose around computer networks in the 1980s --
or rather, the *various* electronic communities, in telephony, law
enforcement, computing, and the digital underground that, by the year
1990, were raiding, rallying, arresting, suing, jailing, fining and
issuing angry manifestos.
None of the events of 1990 were entirely new. Nothing happened in
1990 that did not have some kind of earlier and more understandable
precedent. What gave the Hacker Crackdown its new sense of gravity and
importance was the feeling -- the *community* feeling -- that the
political stakes had been raised; that trouble in cyberspace was no longer
mere mischief or inconclusive skirmishing, but a genuine fight over
genuine issues, a fight for community survival and the shape of the
These electronic communities, having flourished throughout the 1980s,
were becoming aware of themselves, and increasingly, becoming aware of
other, rival communities. Worries were sprouting up right and left, with
complaints, rumors, uneasy speculations. But it would take a catalyst, a
shock, to make the new world evident. Like Bell's great publicity break,
the Tarriffville Rail Disaster of January 1878, it would take a cause
That cause was the AT&T Crash of January 15, 1990. After the Crash,
the wounded and anxious telephone community would come out fighting hard.
The community of telephone technicians, engineers, operators and
researchers is the oldest community in cyberspace. These are the
veterans, the most developed group, the richest, the most respectable, in
most ways the most powerful. Whole generations have come and gone since
Alexander Graham Bell's day, but the community he founded survives; people
work for the phone system today whose great-grandparents worked for the
phone system. Its specialty magazines, such as *Telephony,* *AT&T
Technical Journal,* *Telephone Engineer and Management,* are decades old;
they make computer publications like *Macworld* and *PC Week* look like
And the phone companies take no back seat in high- technology,
either. Other companies' industrial researchers may have won new markets;
but the researchers of Bell Labs have won *seven Nobel Prizes.* One potent
device that Bell Labs originated, the transistor, has created entire
*groups* of industries. Bell Labs are world-famous for generating "a
patent a day," and have even made vital discoveries in astronomy, physics
Throughout its seventy-year history, "Ma Bell" was not so much a
company as a way of life. Until the cataclysmic divestiture of the 1980s,
Ma Bell was perhaps the ultimate maternalist mega-employer. The AT&T
corporate image was the "gentle giant," "the voice with a smile," a
vaguely socialist-realist world of cleanshaven linemen in shiny helmets
and blandly pretty phone-girls in headsets and nylons. Bell System
employees were famous as rock-ribbed Kiwanis and Rotary members,
Little-League enthusiasts, school-board people.
During the long heyday of Ma Bell, the Bell employee corps were
nurtured top-to-botton on a corporate ethos of public service. There was
good money in Bell, but Bell was not *about* money; Bell used public
relations, but never mere marketeering. People went into the Bell System
for a good life, and they had a good life. But it was not mere money that
led Bell people out in the midst of storms and earthquakes to fight with
toppled phone-poles, to wade in flooded manholes, to pull the red- eyed
graveyard-shift over collapsing switching-systems. The Bell ethic was the
electrical equivalent of the postman's: neither rain, nor snow, nor gloom
of night would stop these couriers.
It is easy to be cynical about this, as it is easy to be cynical
about any political or social system; but cynicism does not change the
fact that thousands of people took these ideals very seriously. And some
The Bell ethos was about public service; and that was gratifying; but
it was also about private *power,* and that was gratifying too. As a
corporation, Bell was very special. Bell was privileged. Bell had
snuggled up close to the state. In fact, Bell was as close to government
as you could get in America and still make a whole lot of legitimate
But unlike other companies, Bell was above and beyond the vulgar
commercial fray. Through its regional operating companies, Bell was
omnipresent, local, and intimate, all over America; but the central ivory
towers at its corporate heart were the tallest and the ivoriest around.
There were other phone companies in America, to be sure; the
so-called independents. Rural cooperatives, mostly; small fry, mostly
tolerated, sometimes warred upon. For many decades, "independent"
American phone companies lived in fear and loathing of the official Bell
monopoly (or the "Bell Octopus," as Ma Bell's nineteenth- century enemies
described her in many angry newspaper manifestos). Some few of these
independent entrepreneurs, while legally in the wrong, fought so bitterly
against the Octopus that their illegal phone networks were cast into the
street by Bell agents and publicly burned.
The pure technical sweetness of the Bell System gave its operators,
inventors and engineers a deeply satisfying sense of power and mastery.
They had devoted their lives to improving this vast nation-spanning
machine; over years, whole human lives, they had watched it improve and
grow. It was like a great technological temple. They were an elite, and
they knew it -- even if others did not; in fact, they felt even more
powerful *because* others did not understand.
The deep attraction of this sensation of elite technical power
should never be underestimated. "Technical power" is not for everybody;
for many people it simply has no charm at all. But for some people, it
becomes the core of their lives. For a few, it is overwhelming,
obsessive; it becomes something close to an addiction. People --
especially clever teenage boys whose lives are otherwise mostly powerless
and put-upon - - love this sensation of secret power, and are willing to
do all sorts of amazing things to achieve it. The technical *power* of
electronics has motivated many strange acts detailed in this book, which
would otherwise be inexplicable.
So Bell had power beyond mere capitalism. The Bell service ethos
worked, and was often propagandized, in a rather saccharine fashion. Over
the decades, people slowly grew tired of this. And then, openly impatient
with it. By the early 1980s, Ma Bell was to find herself with scarcely a
real friend in the world. Vail's industrial socialism had become
hopelessly out-of-fashion politically. Bell would be punished for that.
And that punishment would fall harshly upon the people of the telephone
In 1983, Ma Bell was dismantled by federal court action. The pieces
of Bell are now separate corporate entities. The core of the company
became AT&T Communications, and also AT&T Industries (formerly Western
Electric, Bell's manufacturing arm). AT&T Bell Labs become Bell
Communications Research, Bellcore. Then there are the Regional Bell
Operating Companies, or RBOCs, pronounced "arbocks."
Bell was a titan and even these regional chunks are gigantic
enterprises: Fortune 50 companies with plenty of wealth and power behind
them. But the clean lines of "One Policy, One System, Universal Service"
have been shattered, apparently forever.
The "One Policy" of the early Reagan Administration was to shatter a
system that smacked of noncompetitive socialism. Since that time, there
has been no real telephone "policy" on the federal level. Despite the
breakup, the remnants of Bell have never been set free to compete in the
The RBOCs are still very heavily regulated, but not from the top.
Instead, they struggle politically, economically and legally, in what
seems an endless turmoil, in a patchwork of overlapping federal and state
jurisdictions. Increasingly, like other major American corporations, the
RBOCs are becoming multinational, acquiring important commercial interests
in Europe, Latin America, and the Pacific Rim. But this, too, adds to
their legal and political predicament.
The people of what used to be Ma Bell are not happy about their fate.
They feel ill-used. They might have been grudgingly willing to make a
full transition to the free market; to become just companies amid other
companies. But this never happened. Instead, AT&T and the RBOCS ("the
Baby Bells") feel themselves wrenched from side to side by state
regulators, by Congress, by the FCC, and especially by the federal court
of Judge Harold Greene, the magistrate who ordered the Bell breakup and
who has been the de facto czar of American telecommunications ever since
Bell people feel that they exist in a kind of paralegal limbo today.
They don't understand what's demanded of them. If it's "service," why
aren't they treated like a public service? And if it's money, then why
aren't they free to compete for it? No one seems to know, really. Those
who claim to know keep changing their minds. Nobody in authority seems
willing to grasp the nettle for once and all.
Telephone people from other countries are amazed by the American
telephone system today. Not that it works so well; for nowadays even the
French telephone system works, more or less. They are amazed that the
American telephone system *still* works *at all,* under these strange
Bell's "One System" of long-distance service is now only about eighty
percent of a system, with the remainder held by Sprint, MCI, and the
midget long-distance companies. Ugly wars over dubious corporate
practices such as "slamming" (an underhanded method of snitching clients
from rivals) break out with some regularity in the realm of long-distance
service. The battle to break Bell's long-distance monopoly was long and
ugly, and since the breakup the battlefield has not become much prettier.
AT&T's famous shame-and-blame advertisements, which emphasized the shoddy
work and purported ethical shadiness of their competitors, were much
remarked on for their studied psychological cruelty.
There is much bad blood in this industry, and much long-treasured
resentment. AT&T's post-breakup corporate logo, a striped sphere, is
known in the industry as the "Death Star" (a reference from the movie
*Star Wars,* in which the "Death Star" was the spherical high- tech
fortress of the harsh-breathing imperial ultra-baddie, Darth Vader.) Even
AT&T employees are less than thrilled by the Death Star. A popular
(though banned) T- shirt among AT&T employees bears the old-fashioned Bell
logo of the Bell System, plus the newfangled striped sphere, with the
before-and-after comments: "This is your brain -- This is your brain on
drugs!" AT&T made a very well-financed and determined effort to break
into the personal computer market; it was disastrous, and telco computer
experts are derisively known by their competitors as "the pole-climbers."
AT&T and the Baby Bell arbocks still seem to have few friends.
Under conditions of sharp commercial competition, a crash like that
of January 15, 1990 was a major embarrassment to AT&T. It was a direct
blow against their much-treasured reputation for reliability. Within days
of the crash AT&T's Chief Executive Officer, Bob Allen, officially
apologized, in terms of deeply pained humility:
"AT&T had a major service disruption last Monday. We didn't live up
to our own standards of quality, and we didn't live up to yours. It's as
simple as that. And that's not acceptable to us. Or to you.... We
understand how much people have come to depend upon AT&T service, so our
AT&T Bell Laboratories scientists and our network engineers are doing
everything possible to guard against a recurrence.... We know there's no
way to make up for the inconvenience this problem may have caused you."
Mr Allen's "open letter to customers" was printed in lavish ads all
over the country: in the *Wall Street Journal,* *USA Today,* *New York
Times,* *Los Angeles Times,* *Chicago Tribune,* *Philadelphia Inquirer,*
*San Francisco Chronicle Examiner,* *Boston Globe,* *Dallas Morning News,*
*Detroit Free Press,* *Washington Post,* *Houston Chronicle,* *Cleveland
Plain Dealer,* *Atlanta Journal Constitution,* *Minneapolis Star Tribune,*
*St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch,* *Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer,*
*Tacoma News Tribune,* *Miami Herald,* *Pittsburgh Press,* *St. Louis Post
Dispatch,* *Denver Post,* *Phoenix Republic Gazette* and *Tampa Tribune.*
In another press release, AT&T went to some pains to suggest that
this "software glitch" *might* have happened just as easily to MCI,
although, in fact, it hadn't. (MCI's switching software was quite
different from AT&T's -- though not necessarily any safer.) AT&T also
announced their plans to offer a rebate of service on Valentine's Day to
make up for the loss during the Crash.
"Every technical resource available, including Bell Labs scientists
and engineers, has been devoted to assuring it will not occur again," the
public was told. They were further assured that "The chances of a
recurrence are small--a problem of this magnitude never occurred before."
In the meantime, however, police and corporate security maintained
their own suspicions about "the chances of recurrence" and the real reason
why a "problem of this magnitude" had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.
Police and security knew for a fact that hackers of unprecedented
sophistication were illegally entering, and reprogramming, certain digital
switching stations. Rumors of hidden "viruses" and secret "logic bombs"
in the switches ran rampant in the underground, with much chortling over
AT&T's predicament, and idle speculation over what unsung hacker genius
was responsible for it. Some hackers, including police informants, were
trying hard to finger one another as the true culprits of the Crash.
Telco people found little comfort in objectivity when they
contemplated these possibilities. It was just too close to the bone for
them; it was embarrassing; it hurt so much, it was hard even to talk
There has always been thieving and misbehavior in the phone system.
There has always been trouble with the rival independents, and in the
local loops. But to have such trouble in the core of the system, the
long-distance switching stations, is a horrifying affair. To telco
people, this is all the difference between finding roaches in your kitchen
and big horrid sewer-rats in your bedroom.
From the outside, to the average citizen, the telcos still seem
gigantic and impersonal. The American public seems to regard them as
something akin to Soviet apparats. Even when the telcos do their best
corporate- citizen routine, subsidizing magnet high-schools and sponsoring
news-shows on public television, they seem to win little except public
But from the inside, all this looks very different. There's harsh
competition. A legal and political system that seems baffled and bored,
when not actively hostile to telco interests. There's a loss of morale, a
deep sensation of having somehow lost the upper hand. Technological
change has caused a loss of data and revenue to other, newer forms of
transmission. There's theft, and new forms of theft, of growing scale and
boldness and sophistication. With all these factors, it was no surprise
to see the telcos, large and small, break out in a litany of bitter
In late '88 and throughout 1989, telco representatives grew shrill in
their complaints to those few American law enforcement officials who make
it their business to try to understand what telephone people are talking
about. Telco security officials had discovered the computer- hacker
underground, infiltrated it thoroughly, and become deeply alarmed at its
growing expertise. Here they had found a target that was not only
loathsome on its face, but clearly ripe for counterattack.
Those bitter rivals: AT&T, MCI and Sprint -- and a crowd of Baby
Bells: PacBell, Bell South, Southwestern Bell, NYNEX, USWest, as well as
the Bell research consortium Bellcore, and the independent long-distance
carrier Mid-American -- all were to have their role in the great hacker
dragnet of 1990. After years of being battered and pushed around, the
telcos had, at least in a small way, seized the initiative again. After
years of turmoil, telcos and government officials were once again to work
smoothly in concert in defense of the System. Optimism blossomed;
enthusiasm grew on all sides; the prospective taste of vengeance was
From the beginning -- even before the crackdown had a name -- secrecy
was a big problem. There were many good reasons for secrecy in the hacker
crackdown. Hackers and code-thieves were wily prey, slinking back to their
bedrooms and basements and destroying vital incriminating evidence at the
first hint of trouble. Furthermore, the crimes themselves were heavily
technical and difficult to describe, even to police -- much less to the
When such crimes *had* been described intelligibly to the public, in
the past, that very publicity had tended to *increase* the crimes
enormously. Telco officials, while painfully aware of the vulnerabilities
of their systems, were anxious not to publicize those weaknesses.
Experience showed them that those weaknesses, once discovered, would be
pitilessly exploited by tens of thousands of people -- not only by
professional grifters and by underground hackers and phone phreaks, but by
many otherwise more-or-less honest everyday folks, who regarded stealing
service from the faceless, soulless "Phone Company" as a kind of harmless
indoor sport. When it came to protecting their interests, telcos had long
since given up on general public sympathy for "the Voice with a Smile."
Nowadays the telco's "Voice" was very likely to be a computer's; and the
American public showed much less of the proper respect and gratitude due
the fine public service bequeathed them by Dr. Bell and Mr. Vail. The more
efficient, high-tech, computerized, and impersonal the telcos became, it
seemed, the more they were met by sullen public resentment and amoral
Telco officials wanted to punish the phone-phreak underground, in as
public and exemplary a manner as possible. They wanted to make dire
examples of the worst offenders, to seize the ringleaders and intimidate
the small fry, to discourage and frighten the wacky hobbyists, and send
the professional grifters to jail. To do all this, publicity was vital.
Yet operational secrecy was even more so. If word got out that a
nationwide crackdown was coming, the hackers might simply vanish; destroy
the evidence, hide their computers, go to earth, and wait for the campaign
to blow over. Even the young hackers were crafty and suspicious, and as
for the professional grifters, they tended to split for the nearest
state-line at the first sign of trouble. For the crackdown to work well,
they would all have to be caught red-handed, swept upon suddenly, out of
the blue, from every corner of the compass.
And there was another strong motive for secrecy. In the worst-case
scenario, a blown campaign might leave the telcos open to a devastating
hacker counter-attack. If there were indeed hackers loose in America who
had caused the January 15 Crash -- if there were truly gifted hackers,
loose in the nation's long-distance switching systems, and enraged or
frightened by the crackdown -- then they might react unpredictably to an
attempt to collar them. Even if caught, they might have talented and
vengeful friends still running around loose. Conceivably, it could turn
ugly. Very ugly. In fact, it was hard to imagine just how ugly things
might turn, given that possibility.
Counter-attack from hackers was a genuine concern for the telcos. In
point of fact, they would never suffer any such counter-attack. But in
months to come, they would be at some pains to publicize this notion and
to utter grim warnings about it.
Still, that risk seemed well worth running. Better to run the risk
of vengeful attacks, than to live at the mercy of potential crashers. Any
cop would tell you that a protection racket had no real future.
And publicity was such a useful thing. Corporate security officers,
including telco security, generally work under conditions of great
discretion. And corporate security officials do not make money for their
companies. Their job is to *prevent the loss* of money, which is much less
glamorous than actually winning profits.
If you are a corporate security official, and you do your job
brilliantly, then nothing bad happens to your company at all. Because of
this, you appear completely superfluous. This is one of the many
unattractive aspects of security work. It's rare that these folks have
the chance to draw some healthy attention to their own efforts.
Publicity also served the interest of their friends in law
enforcement. Public officials, including law enforcement officials,
thrive by attracting favorable public interest. A brilliant prosecution
in a matter of vital public interest can make the career of a prosecuting
attorney. And for a police officer, good publicity opens the purses of
the legislature; it may bring a citation, or a promotion, or at least a
rise in status and the respect of one's peers.
But to have both publicity and secrecy is to have one's cake and eat
it too. In months to come, as we will show, this impossible act was to
cause great pain to the agents of the crackdown. But early on, it seemed
possible -- maybe even likely -- that the crackdown could successfully
combine the best of both worlds. The *arrest* of hackers would be heavily
publicized. The actual *deeds* of the hackers, which were technically
hard to explain and also a security risk, would be left decently obscured.
The *threat* hackers posed would be heavily trumpeted; the likelihood of
their actually committing such fearsome crimes would be left to the
public's imagination. The spread of the computer underground, and its
growing technical sophistication, would be heavily promoted; the actual
hackers themselves, mostly bespectacled middle-class white suburban
teenagers, would be denied any personal publicity.
It does not seem to have occurred to any telco official that the
hackers accused would demand a day in court; that journalists would smile
upon the hackers as "good copy;" that wealthy high-tech entrepreneurs
would offer moral and financial support to crackdown victims; that
constitutional lawyers would show up with briefcases, frowning mightily.
This possibility does not seem to have ever entered the game-plan.
And even if it had, it probably would not have slowed the ferocious
pursuit of a stolen phone-company document, mellifluously known as
"Control Office Administration of Enhanced 911 Services for Special
Services and Major Account Centers."
In the chapters to follow, we will explore the worlds of police and
the computer underground, and the large shadowy area where they overlap.
But first, we must explore the battleground. Before we leave the world of
the telcos, we must understand what a switching system actually is and how
your telephone actually works.
To the average citizen, the idea of the telephone is represented by,
well, a *telephone:* a device that you talk into. To a telco
professional, however, the telephone itself is known, in lordly fashion,
as a "subset." The "subset" in your house is a mere adjunct, a distant
nerve ending, of the central switching stations, which are ranked in
levels of heirarchy, up to the long-distance electronic switching
stations, which are some of the largest computers on earth.
Let us imagine that it is, say, 1925, before the introduction of
computers, when the phone system was simpler and somewhat easier to grasp.
Let's further imagine that you are Miss Leticia Luthor, a fictional
operator for Ma Bell in New York City of the 20s.
Basically, you, Miss Luthor, *are* the "switching system." You are
sitting in front of a large vertical switchboard, known as a "cordboard,"
made of shiny wooden panels, with ten thousand metal-rimmed holes punched
in them, known as jacks. The engineers would have put more holes into
your switchboard, but ten thousand is as many as you can reach without
actually having to get up out of your chair.
Each of these ten thousand holes has its own little electric
lightbulb, known as a "lamp," and its own neatly printed number code.
With the ease of long habit, you are scanning your board for lit-up
bulbs. This is what you do most of the time, so you are used to it.
A lamp lights up. This means that the phone at the end of that
line has been taken off the hook. Whenever a handset is taken off the
hook, that closes a circuit inside the phone which then signals the local
office, i.e. you, automatically. There might be somebody calling, or then
again the phone might be simply off the hook, but this does not matter to
you yet. The first thing you do, is record that number in your logbook,
in your fine American public-school handwriting. This comes first,
naturally, since it is done for billing purposes.
You now take the plug of your answering cord, which goes directly to
your headset, and plug it into the lit-up hole. "Operator," you announce.
In operator's classes, before taking this job, you have been issued a
large pamphlet full of canned operator's responses for all kinds of
contingencies, which you had to memorize. You have also been trained in a
proper non- regional, non-ethnic pronunciation and tone of voice. You
rarely have the occasion to make any spontaneous remark to a customer, and
in fact this is frowned upon (except out on the rural lines where people
have time on their hands and get up to all kinds of mischief).
A tough-sounding user's voice at the end of the line gives you a
number. Immediately, you write that number down in your logbook, next to
the caller's number, which you just wrote earlier. You then look and see
if the number this guy wants is in fact on your switchboard, which it
generally is, since it's generally a local call. Long distance costs so
much that people use it sparingly.
Only then do you pick up a calling-cord from a shelf at the base of
the switchboard. This is a long elastic cord mounted on a kind of reel so
that it will zip back in when you unplug it. There are a lot of cords
down there, and when a bunch of them are out at once they look like a nest
of snakes. Some of the girls think there are bugs living in those
cable-holes. They're called "cable mites" and are supposed to bite your
hands and give you rashes. You don't believe this, yourself.
Gripping the head of your calling-cord, you slip the tip of it deftly
into the sleeve of the jack for the called person. Not all the way in,
though. You just touch it. If you hear a clicking sound, that means the
line is busy and you can't put the call through. If the line is busy, you
have to stick the calling-cord into a "busy-tone jack," which will give
the guy a busy-tone. This way you don't have to talk to him yourself and
absorb his natural human frustration.
But the line isn't busy. So you pop the cord all the way in. Relay
circuits in your board make the distant phone ring, and if somebody picks
it up off the hook, then a phone conversation starts. You can hear this
conversation on your answering cord, until you unplug it. In fact you
could listen to the whole conversation if you wanted, but this is sternly
frowned upon by management, and frankly, when you've overheard one, you've
pretty much heard 'em all.
You can tell how long the conversation lasts by the glow of the
calling-cord's lamp, down on the calling-cord's shelf. When it's over,
you unplug and the calling-cord zips back into place.
Having done this stuff a few hundred thousand times, you become quite
good at it. In fact you're plugging, and connecting, and disconnecting,
ten, twenty, forty cords at a time. It's a manual handicraft, really,
quite satisfying in a way, rather like weaving on an upright loom.
Should a long-distance call come up, it would be different, but not
all that different. Instead of connecting the call through your own local
switchboard, you have to go up the hierarchy, onto the long-distance
lines, known as "trunklines." Depending on how far the call goes, it may
have to work its way through a whole series of operators, which can take
quite a while. The caller doesn't wait on the line while this complex
process is negotiated across the country by the gaggle of operators.
Instead, the caller hangs up, and you call him back yourself when the call
has finally worked its way through.
After four or five years of this work, you get married, and you have
to quit your job, this being the natural order of womanhood in the
American 1920s. The phone company has to train somebody else -- maybe two
people, since the phone system has grown somewhat in the meantime. And
this costs money.
In fact, to use any kind of human being as a switching system is a
very expensive proposition. Eight thousand Leticia Luthors would be bad
enough, but a quarter of a million of them is a military-scale proposition
and makes drastic measures in automation financially worthwhile.
Although the phone system continues to grow today, the number of
human beings employed by telcos has been dropping steadily for years.
Phone "operators" now deal with nothing but unusual contingencies, all
routine operations having been shrugged off onto machines. Consequently,
telephone operators are considerably less machine-like nowadays, and have
been known to have accents and actual character in their voices. When you
reach a human operator today, the operators are rather more "human" than
they were in Leticia's day -- but on the other hand, human beings in the
phone system are much harder to reach in the first place.
Over the first half of the twentieth century, "electromechanical"
switching systems of growing complexity were cautiously introduced into
the phone system. In certain backwaters, some of these hybrid systems are
still in use. But after 1965, the phone system began to go completely
electronic, and this is by far the dominant mode today. Electromechanical
systems have "crossbars," and "brushes," and other large moving mechanical
parts, which, while faster and cheaper than Leticia, are still slow, and
tend to wear out fairly quickly.
But fully electronic systems are inscribed on silicon chips, and are
lightning-fast, very cheap, and quite durable. They are much cheaper to
maintain than even the best electromechanical systems, and they fit into
half the space. And with every year, the silicon chip grows smaller,
faster, and cheaper yet. Best of all, automated electronics work around
the clock and don't have salaries or health insurance.
There are, however, quite serious drawbacks to the use of
computer-chips. When they do break down, it is a daunting challenge to
figure out what the heck has gone wrong with them. A broken cordboard
generally had a problem in it big enough to see. A broken chip has
invisible, microscopic faults. And the faults in bad software can be so
subtle as to be practically theological.
If you want a mechanical system to do something new, then you must
travel to where it is, and pull pieces out of it, and wire in new pieces.
This costs money. However, if you want a chip to do something new, all
you have to do is change its software, which is easy, fast and dirt-cheap.
You don't even have to see the chip to change its program. Even if you did
see the chip, it wouldn't look like much. A chip with program X doesn't
look one whit different from a chip with program Y.
With the proper codes and sequences, and access to specialized
phone-lines, you can change electronic switching systems all over America
from anywhere you please.
And so can other people. If they know how, and if they want to, they
can sneak into a microchip via the special phonelines and diddle with it,
leaving no physical trace at all. If they broke into the operator's
station and held Leticia at gunpoint, that would be very obvious. If they
broke into a telco building and went after an electromechanical switch
with a toolbelt, that would at least leave many traces. But people can do
all manner of amazing things to computer switches just by typing on a
keyboard, and keyboards are everywhere today. The extent of this
vulnerability is deep, dark, broad, almost mind-boggling, and yet this is
a basic, primal fact of life about any computer on a network.
Security experts over the past twenty years have insisted, with
growing urgency, that this basic vulnerability of computers represents an
entirely new level of risk, of unknown but obviously dire potential to
society. And they are right.
An electronic switching station does pretty much everything Letitia
did, except in nanoseconds and on a much larger scale. Compared to Miss
Luthor's ten thousand jacks, even a primitive 1ESS switching computer, 60s
vintage, has a 128,000 lines. And the current AT&T system of choice is
the monstrous fifth-generation 5ESS.
An Electronic Switching Station can scan every line on its "board"
in a tenth of a second, and it does this over and over, tirelessly, around
the clock. Instead of eyes, it uses "ferrod scanners" to check the
condition of local lines and trunks. Instead of hands, it has "signal
distributors," "central pulse distributors," "magnetic latching relays,"
and "reed switches," which complete and break the calls. Instead of a
brain, it has a "central processor." Instead of an instruction manual, it
has a program. Instead of a handwritten logbook for recording and billing
calls, it has magnetic tapes. And it never has to talk to anybody.
Everything a customer might say to it is done by punching the direct-dial
tone buttons on your subset.
Although an Electronic Switching Station can't talk, it does need an
interface, some way to relate to its, er, employers. This interface is
known as the "master control center." (This interface might be better
known simply as "the interface," since it doesn't actually "control" phone
calls directly. However, a term like "Master Control Center" is just the
kind of rhetoric that telco maintenance engineers -- and hackers -- find
Using the master control center, a phone engineer can test local and
trunk lines for malfunctions. He (rarely she) can check various alarm
displays, measure traffic on the lines, examine the records of telephone
usage and the charges for those calls, and change the programming.
And, of course, anybody else who gets into the master control center
by remote control can also do these things, if he (rarely she) has managed
to figure them out, or, more likely, has somehow swiped the knowledge from
people who already know.
In 1989 and 1990, one particular RBOC, BellSouth, which felt
particularly troubled, spent a purported $1.2 million on computer
security. Some think it spent as much as two million, if you count all
the associated costs. Two million dollars is still very little compared to
the great cost-saving utility of telephonic computer systems.
Unfortunately, computers are also stupid. Unlike human beings,
computers possess the truly profound stupidity of the inanimate.
In the 1960s, in the first shocks of spreading computerization,
there was much easy talk about the stupidity of computers -- how they
could "only follow the program" and were rigidly required to do "only what
they were told." There has been rather less talk about the stupidity of
computers since they began to achieve grandmaster status in chess
tournaments, and to manifest many other impressive forms of apparent
Nevertheless, computers *still* are profoundly brittle and stupid;
they are simply vastly more subtle in their stupidity and brittleness.
The computers of the 1990s are much more reliable in their components than
earlier computer systems, but they are also called upon to do far more
complex things, under far more challenging conditions.
On a basic mathematical level, every single line of a software
program offers a chance for some possible screwup. Software does not sit
still when it works; it "runs," it interacts with itself and with its own
inputs and outputs. By analogy, it stretches like putty into millions of
possible shapes and conditions, so many shapes that they can never all be
successfully tested, not even in the lifespan of the universe. Sometimes
the putty snaps.
The stuff we call "software" is not like anything that human society
is used to thinking about. Software is something like a machine, and
something like mathematics, and something like language, and something
like thought, and art, and information.... but software is not in fact
any of those other things. The protean quality of software is one of the
great sources of its fascination. It also makes software very powerful,
very subtle, very unpredictable, and very risky.
Some software is bad and buggy. Some is "robust," even
"bulletproof." The best software is that which has been tested by
thousands of users under thousands of different conditions, over years.
It is then known as "stable." This does *not* mean that the software is
now flawless, free of bugs. It generally means that there are plenty of
bugs in it, but the bugs are well-identified and fairly well understood.
There is simply no way to assure that software is free of flaws.
Though software is mathematical in nature, it cannot by "proven" like a
mathematical theorem; software is more like language, with inherent
ambiguities, with different definitions, different assumptions, different
levels of meaning that can conflict.
Human beings can manage, more or less, with human language because
we can catch the gist of it.
Computers, despite years of effort in "artificial intelligence," have
proven spectacularly bad in "catching the gist" of anything at all. The
tiniest bit of semantic grit may still bring the mightiest computer
tumbling down. One of the most hazardous things you can do to a computer
program is try to improve it -- to try to make it safer. Software
"patches" represent new, untried un- "stable" software, which is by
The modern telephone system has come to depend, utterly and
irretrievably, upon software. And the System Crash of January 15, 1990,
was caused by an *improvement* in software. Or rather, an *attempted*
As it happened, the problem itself -- the problem per se -- took this
form. A piece of telco software had been written in C language, a
standard language of the telco field. Within the C software was a long
"do... while" construct. The "do... while" construct contained a "switch"
statement. The "switch" statement contained an "if" clause. The "if"
clause contained a "break." The "break" was *supposed* to "break" the "if
clause." Instead, the "break" broke the "switch" statement.
That was the problem, the actual reason why people picking up phones
on January 15, 1990, could not talk to one another.
Or at least, that was the subtle, abstract, cyberspatial seed of the
problem. This is how the problem manifested itself from the realm of
programming into the realm of real life.
The System 7 software for AT&T's 4ESS switching station, the "Generic
44E14 Central Office Switch Software," had been extensively tested, and
was considered very stable. By the end of 1989, eighty of AT&T's
switching systems nationwide had been programmed with the new software.
Cautiously, thirty- four stations were left to run the slower,
less-capable System 6, because AT&T suspected there might be shakedown
problems with the new and unprecedently sophisticated System 7 network.
The stations with System 7 were programmed to switch over to a backup
net in case of any problems. In mid-December 1989, however, a new
high-velocity, high- security software patch was distributed to each of
the 4ESS switches that would enable them to switch over even more quickly,
making the System 7 network that much more secure.
Unfortunately, every one of these 4ESS switches was now in possession
of a small but deadly flaw.
In order to maintain the network, switches must monitor the
condition of other switches -- whether they are up and running, whether
they have temporarily shut down, whether they are overloaded and in need
of assistance, and so forth. The new software helped control this
bookkeeping function by monitoring the status calls from other switches.
It only takes four to six seconds for a troubled 4ESS switch to rid
itself of all its calls, drop everything temporarily, and re-boot its
software from scratch. Starting over from scratch will generally rid the
switch of any software problems that may have developed in the course of
running the system. Bugs that arise will be simply wiped out by this
process. It is a clever idea. This process of automatically re-booting
from scratch is known as the "normal fault recovery routine." Since
AT&T's software is in fact exceptionally stable, systems rarely have to go
into "fault recovery" in the first place; but AT&T has always boasted of
its "real world" reliability, and this tactic is a belt-and-suspenders
The 4ESS switch used its new software to monitor its fellow switches
as they recovered from faults. As other switches came back on line after
recovery, they would send their "OK" signals to the switch. The switch
would make a little note to that effect in its "status map," recognizing
that the fellow switch was back and ready to go, and should be sent some
calls and put back to regular work.
Unfortunately, while it was busy bookkeeping with the status map, the
tiny flaw in the brand-new software came into play. The flaw caused the
4ESS switch to interacted, subtly but drastically, with incoming telephone
calls from human users. If -- and only if -- two incoming phone-calls
happened to hit the switch within a hundredth of a second, then a small
patch of data would be garbled by the flaw.
But the switch had been programmed to monitor itself constantly for
any possible damage to its data. When the switch perceived that its data
had been somehow garbled, then it too would go down, for swift repairs to
its software. It would signal its fellow switches not to send any more
work. It would go into the fault- recovery mode for four to six seconds.
And then the switch would be fine again, and would send out its "OK, ready
for work" signal.
However, the "OK, ready for work" signal was the *very thing that had
caused the switch to go down in the first place.* And *all* the System 7
switches had the same flaw in their status-map software. As soon as they
stopped to make the bookkeeping note that their fellow switch was "OK,"
then they too would become vulnerable to the slight chance that two
phone-calls would hit them within a hundredth of a second.
At approximately 2:25 p.m. EST on Monday, January 15, one of AT&T's
4ESS toll switching systems in New York City had an actual, legitimate,
minor problem. It went into fault recovery routines, announced "I'm going
down," then announced, "I'm back, I'm OK." And this cheery message then
blasted throughout the network to many of its fellow 4ESS switches.
Many of the switches, at first, completely escaped trouble. These
lucky switches were not hit by the coincidence of two phone calls within a
hundredth of a second. Their software did not fail -- at first. But
three switches -- in Atlanta, St. Louis, and Detroit -- were unlucky, and
were caught with their hands full. And they went down. And they came
back up, almost immediately. And they too began to broadcast the lethal
message that they, too, were "OK" again, activating the lurking software
bug in yet other switches.
As more and more switches did have that bit of bad luck and
collapsed, the call-traffic became more and more densely packed in the
remaining switches, which were groaning to keep up with the load. And of
course, as the calls became more densely packed, the switches were *much
more likely* to be hit twice within a hundredth of a second.
It only took four seconds for a switch to get well. There was no
*physical* damage of any kind to the switches, after all. Physically,
they were working perfectly. This situation was "only" a software problem.
But the 4ESS switches were leaping up and down every four to six
seconds, in a virulent spreading wave all over America, in utter, manic,
mechanical stupidity. They kept *knocking* one another down with their
contagious "OK" messages.
It took about ten minutes for the chain reaction to cripple the
network. Even then, switches would periodically luck-out and manage to
resume their normal work. Many calls -- millions of them -- were managing
to get through. But millions weren't.
The switching stations that used System 6 were not directly affected.
Thanks to these old-fashioned switches, AT&T's national system avoided
complete collapse. This fact also made it clear to engineers that System
7 was at fault.
Bell Labs engineers, working feverishly in New Jersey, Illinois, and
Ohio, first tried their entire repertoire of standard network remedies on
the malfunctioning System 7. None of the remedies worked, of course,
because nothing like this had ever happened to any phone system before.
By cutting out the backup safety network entirely, they were able to
reduce the frenzy of "OK" messages by about half. The system then began
to recover, as the chain reaction slowed. By 11:30 pm on Monday January
15, sweating engineers on the midnight shift breathed a sigh of relief as
the last switch cleared-up.
By Tuesday they were pulling all the brand-new 4ESS software and
replacing it with an earlier version of System 7.
If these had been human operators, rather than computers at work,
someone would simply have eventually stopped screaming. It would have
been *obvious* that the situation was not "OK," and common sense would
have kicked in. Humans possess common sense -- at least to some extent.
Computers simply don't.
On the other hand, computers can handle hundreds of calls per second.
Humans simply can't. If every single human being in America worked for
the phone company, we couldn't match the performance of digital switches:
direct-dialling, three-way calling, speed-calling, call- waiting, Caller
ID, all the rest of the cornucopia of digital bounty. Replacing computers
with operators is simply not an option any more.
And yet we still, anachronistically, expect humans to be running our
phone system. It is hard for us to understand that we have sacrificed
huge amounts of initiative and control to senseless yet powerful machines.
When the phones fail, we want somebody to be responsible. We want
somebody to blame.
When the Crash of January 15 happened, the American populace was
simply not prepared to understand that enormous landslides in cyberspace,
like the Crash itself, can happen, and can be nobody's fault in
particular. It was easier to believe, maybe even in some odd way more
reassuring to believe, that some evil person, or evil group, had done this
to us. "Hackers" had done it. With a virus. A trojan horse. A software
bomb. A dirty plot of some kind. People believed this, responsible
people. In 1990, they were looking hard for evidence to confirm their
And they would look in a lot of places.
Come 1991, however, the outlines of an apparent new reality would
begin to emerge from the fog.
On July 1 and 2, 1991, computer-software collapses in telephone
switching stations disrupted service in Washington DC, Pittsburgh, Los
Angeles and San Francisco. Once again, seemingly minor maintenance
problems had crippled the digital System 7. About twelve million people
were affected in the Crash of July 1, 1991.
Said the New York Times Service: "Telephone company executives and
federal regulators said they were not ruling out the possibility of
sabotage by computer hackers, but most seemed to think the problems
stemmed from some unknown defect in the software running the networks."
And sure enough, within the week, a red-faced software company, DSC
Communications Corporation of Plano, Texas, owned up to "glitches" in the
"signal transfer point" software that DSC had designed for Bell Atlantic
and Pacific Bell. The immediate cause of the July 1 Crash was a single
mistyped character: one tiny typographical flaw in one single line of the
software. One mistyped letter, in one single line, had deprived the
nation's capital of phone service. It was not particularly surprising
that this tiny flaw had escaped attention: a typical System 7 station
requires *ten million* lines of code.
On Tuesday, September 17, 1991, came the most spectacular outage yet.
This case had nothing to do with software failures -- at least, not
directly. Instead, a group of AT&T's switching stations in New York City
had simply run out of electrical power and shut down cold. Their back-up
batteries had failed. Automatic warning systems were supposed to warn of
the loss of battery power, but those automatic systems had failed as well.
This time, Kennedy, La Guardia, and Newark airports all had their
voice and data communications cut. This horrifying event was particularly
ironic, as attacks on airport computers by hackers had long been a
standard nightmare scenario, much trumpeted by computer- security experts
who feared the computer underground. There had even been a Hollywood
thriller about sinister hackers ruining airport computers -- *Die Hard II.*
Now AT&T itself had crippled airports with computer malfunctions --
not just one airport, but three at once, some of the busiest in the world.
Air traffic came to a standstill throughout the Greater New York
area, causing more than 500 flights to be cancelled, in a spreading wave
all over America and even into Europe. Another 500 or so flights were
delayed, affecting, all in all, about 85,000 passengers. (One of these
passengers was the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.)
Stranded passengers in New York and New Jersey were further
infuriated to discover that they could not even manage to make a long
distance phone call, to explain their delay to loved ones or business
associates. Thanks to the crash, about four and a half million domestic
calls, and half a million international calls, failed to get through.
The September 17 NYC Crash, unlike the previous ones, involved not a
whisper of "hacker" misdeeds. On the contrary, by 1991, AT&T itself was
suffering much of the vilification that had formerly been directed at
hackers. Congressmen were grumbling. So were state and federal
regulators. And so was the press.
For their part, ancient rival MCI took out snide full- page newspaper
ads in New York, offering their own long- distance services for the "next
time that AT&T goes down."
"You wouldn't find a classy company like AT&T using such
advertising," protested AT&T Chairman Robert Allen, unconvincingly. Once
again, out came the full-page AT&T apologies in newspapers, apologies for
"an inexcusable culmination of both human and mechanical failure." (This
time, however, AT&T offered no discount on later calls. Unkind critics
suggested that AT&T were worried about setting any precedent for refunding
the financial losses caused by telephone crashes.)
Industry journals asked publicly if AT&T was "asleep at the switch."
The telephone network, America's purported marvel of high-tech
reliability, had gone down three times in 18 months. *Fortune* magazine
listed the Crash of September 17 among the "Biggest Business Goofs of
1991," cruelly parodying AT&T's ad campaign in an article entitled "AT&T
Wants You Back (Safely On the Ground, God Willing)."
Why had those New York switching systems simply run out of power?
Because no human being had attended to the alarm system. Why did the
alarm systems blare automatically, without any human being noticing?
Because the three telco technicians who *should* have been listening were
absent from their stations in the power-room, on another floor of the
building -- attending a training class. A training class about the alarm
systems for the power room!
"Crashing the System" was no longer "unprecedented" by late 1991. On
the contrary, it no longer even seemed an oddity. By 1991, it was clear
that all the policemen in the world could no longer "protect" the phone
system from crashes. By far the worst crashes the system had ever had,
had been inflicted, by the system, upon *itself.* And this time nobody was
making cocksure statements that this was an anomaly, something that would
never happen again. By 1991 the System's defenders had met their nebulous
Enemy, and the Enemy was -- the System.