Literary Freeware: Not for Commercial Use
THE HACKER CRACKDOWN: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier
PART TWO: THE DIGITAL UNDERGROUND
The date was May 9, 1990. The Pope was touring Mexico City.
Hustlers from the Medellin Cartel were trying to buy black-market Stinger
missiles in Florida. On the comics page, Doonesbury character Andy was
dying of AIDS. And then.... a highly unusual item whose novelty and
calculated rhetoric won it headscratching attention in newspapers all over
The US Attorney's office in Phoenix, Arizona, had issued a press
release announcing a nationwide law enforcement crackdown against "illegal
computer hacking activities." The sweep was officially known as
Eight paragraphs in the press release gave the bare facts:
twenty-seven search warrants carried out on May 8, with three arrests, and
a hundred and fifty agents on the prowl in "twelve" cities across America.
(Different counts in local press reports yielded "thirteen," "fourteen,"
and "sixteen" cities.) Officials estimated that criminal losses of revenue
to telephone companies "may run into millions of dollars." Credit for the
Sundevil investigations was taken by the US Secret Service, Assistant US
Attorney Tim Holtzen of Phoenix, and the Assistant Attorney General of
Arizona, Gail Thackeray.
The prepared remarks of Garry M. Jenkins, appearing in a U.S.
Department of Justice press release, were of particular interest. Mr.
Jenkins was the Assistant Director of the US Secret Service, and the
highest-ranking federal official to take any direct public role in the
hacker crackdown of 1990.
"Today, the Secret Service is sending a clear message to those
computer hackers who have decided to violate the laws of this nation in
the mistaken belief that they can successfully avoid detection by hiding
behind the relative anonymity of their computer terminals.(...)
"Underground groups have been formed for the purpose of exchanging
information relevant to their criminal activities. These groups often
communicate with each other through message systems between computers
called 'bulletin boards.'
"Our experience shows that many computer hacker suspects are no
longer misguided teenagers, mischievously playing games with their
computers in their bedrooms. Some are now high tech computer operators
using computers to engage in unlawful conduct."
Who were these "underground groups" and "high- tech operators?"
Where had they come from? What did they want? Who *were* they? Were
they "mischievous?" Were they dangerous? How had "misguided teenagers"
managed to alarm the United States Secret Service? And just how
widespread was this sort of thing?
Of all the major players in the Hacker Crackdown: the phone
companies, law enforcement, the civil libertarians, and the "hackers"
themselves -- the "hackers" are by far the most mysterious, by far the
hardest to understand, by far the *weirdest.*
Not only are "hackers" novel in their activities, but they come in
a variety of odd subcultures, with a variety of languages, motives and
The earliest proto-hackers were probably those unsung mischievous
telegraph boys who were summarily fired by the Bell Company in 1878.
Legitimate "hackers," those computer enthusiasts who are
independent-minded but law-abiding, generally trace their spiritual
ancestry to elite technical universities, especially M.I.T. and Stanford,
in the 1960s.
But the genuine roots of the modern hacker *underground* can probably
be traced most successfully to a now much-obscured hippie anarchist
movement known as the Yippies. The Yippies, who took their name from the
largely fictional "Youth International Party," carried out a loud and
lively policy of surrealistic subversion and outrageous political
mischief. Their basic tenets were flagrant sexual promiscuity, open and
copious drug use, the political overthrow of any powermonger over thirty
years of age, and an immediate end to the war in Vietnam, by any means
necessary, including the psychic levitation of the Pentagon.
The two most visible Yippies were Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.
Rubin eventually became a Wall Street broker. Hoffman, ardently sought by
federal authorities, went into hiding for seven years, in Mexico, France,
and the United States. While on the lam, Hoffman continued to write and
publish, with help from sympathizers in the American anarcho-leftist
underground. Mostly, Hoffman survived through false ID and odd jobs.
Eventually he underwent facial plastic surgery and adopted an entirely new
identity as one "Barry Freed." After surrendering himself to authorities
in 1980, Hoffman spent a year in prison on a cocaine conviction.
Hoffman's worldview grew much darker as the glory days of the 1960s
faded. In 1989, he purportedly committed suicide, under odd and, to some,
rather suspicious circumstances.
Abbie Hoffman is said to have caused the Federal Bureau of
Investigation to amass the single largest investigation file ever opened
on an individual American citizen. (If this is true, it is still
questionable whether the FBI regarded Abbie Hoffman a serious public
threat -- quite possibly, his file was enormous simply because Hoffman
left colorful legendry wherever he went). He was a gifted publicist, who
regarded electronic media as both playground and weapon. He actively
enjoyed manipulating network TV and other gullible, image- hungry media,
with various weird lies, mindboggling rumors, impersonation scams, and
other sinister distortions, all absolutely guaranteed to upset cops,
Presidential candidates, and federal judges. Hoffman's most famous work
was a book self-reflexively known as *Steal This Book,* which publicized a
number of methods by which young, penniless hippie agitators might live
off the fat of a system supported by humorless drones. *Steal This Book,*
whose title urged readers to damage the very means of distribution which
had put it into their hands, might be described as a spiritual ancestor of
a computer virus.
Hoffman, like many a later conspirator, made extensive use of
pay-phones for his agitation work -- in his case, generally through the
use of cheap brass washers as coin-slugs.
During the Vietnam War, there was a federal surtax imposed on
telephone service; Hoffman and his cohorts could, and did, argue that in
systematically stealing phone service they were engaging in civil
disobedience: virtuously denying tax funds to an illegal and immoral war.
But this thin veil of decency was soon dropped entirely.
Ripping-off the System found its own justification in deep alienation and
a basic outlaw contempt for conventional bourgeois values. Ingenious,
vaguely politicized varieties of rip-off, which might be described as
"anarchy by convenience," became very popular in Yippie circles, and
because rip-off was so useful, it was to survive the Yippie movement
In the early 1970s, it required fairly limited expertise and
ingenuity to cheat payphones, to divert "free" electricity and gas
service, or to rob vending machines and parking meters for handy pocket
change. It also required a conspiracy to spread this knowledge, and the
gall and nerve actually to commit petty theft, but the Yippies had these
qualifications in plenty. In June 1971, Abbie Hoffman and a telephone
enthusiast sarcastically known as "Al Bell" began publishing a newsletter
called *Youth International Party Line.* This newsletter was dedicated to
collating and spreading Yippie rip-off techniques, especially of phones,
to the joy of the freewheeling underground and the insensate rage of all
As a political tactic, phone-service theft ensured that Yippie
advocates would always have ready access to the long-distance telephone as
a medium, despite the Yippies' chronic lack of organization, discipline,
money, or even a steady home address.
*Party Line* was run out of Greenwich Village for a couple of years,
then "Al Bell" more or less defected from the faltering ranks of
Yippiedom, changing the newsletter's name to *TAP* or *Technical
Assistance Program.* After the Vietnam War ended, the steam began leaking
rapidly out of American radical dissent. But by this time, "Bell" and his
dozen or so core contributors had the bit between their teeth, and had
begun to derive tremendous gut-level satisfaction from the sensation of
pure *technical power.*
*TAP* articles, once highly politicized, became pitilessly jargonized
and technical, in homage or parody to the Bell System's own technical
documents, which *TAP* studied closely, gutted, and reproduced without
permission. The *TAP* elite revelled in gloating possession of the
specialized knowledge necessary to beat the system.
"Al Bell" dropped out of the game by the late 70s, and "Tom
Edison" took over; TAP readers (some 1400 of them, all told) now began to
show more interest in telex switches and the growing phenomenon of
In 1983, "Tom Edison" had his computer stolen and his house set on
fire by an arsonist. This was an eventually mortal blow to *TAP* (though
the legendary name was to be resurrected in 1990 by a young Kentuckian
computer- outlaw named "Predat0r.")
Ever since telephones began to make money, there have been people
willing to rob and defraud phone companies. The legions of petty phone
thieves vastly outnumber those "phone phreaks" who "explore the system"
for the sake of the intellectual challenge. The New York metropolitan
area (long in the vanguard of American crime) claims over 150,000 physical
attacks on pay telephones every year! Studied carefully, a modern
payphone reveals itself as a little fortress, carefully designed and
redesigned over generations, to resist coin- slugs, zaps of electricity,
chunks of coin-shaped ice, prybars, magnets, lockpicks, blasting caps.
Public pay- phones must survive in a world of unfriendly, greedy people,
and a modern payphone is as exquisitely evolved as a cactus.
Because the phone network pre-dates the computer network, the
scofflaws known as "phone phreaks" pre-date the scofflaws known as
"computer hackers." In practice, today, the line between "phreaking" and
"hacking" is very blurred, just as the distinction between telephones and
computers has blurred. The phone system has been digitized, and computers
have learned to "talk" over phone-lines. What's worse -- and this was the
point of the Mr. Jenkins of the Secret Service -- some hackers have
learned to steal, and some thieves have learned to hack.
Despite the blurring, one can still draw a few useful behavioral
distinctions between "phreaks" and "hackers." Hackers are intensely
interested in the "system" per se, and enjoy relating to machines.
"Phreaks" are more social, manipulating the system in a rough-and-ready
fashion in order to get through to other human beings, fast, cheap and
under the table.
Phone phreaks love nothing so much as "bridges," illegal conference
calls of ten or twelve chatting conspirators, seaboard to seaboard,
lasting for many hours -- and running, of course, on somebody else's tab,
preferably a large corporation's.
As phone-phreak conferences wear on, people drop out (or simply leave
the phone off the hook, while they sashay off to work or school or
babysitting), and new people are phoned up and invited to join in, from
some other continent, if possible. Technical trivia, boasts, brags, lies,
head-trip deceptions, weird rumors, and cruel gossip are all freely
The lowest rung of phone-phreaking is the theft of telephone access
codes. Charging a phone call to somebody else's stolen number is, of
course, a pig-easy way of stealing phone service, requiring practically no
technical expertise. This practice has been very widespread, especially
among lonely people without much money who are far from home. Code theft
has flourished especially in college dorms, military bases, and,
notoriously, among roadies for rock bands. Of late, code theft has spread
very rapidly among Third Worlders in the US, who pile up enormous unpaid
long-distance bills to the Caribbean, South America, and Pakistan.
The simplest way to steal phone-codes is simply to look over a
victim's shoulder as he punches-in his own code-number on a public
payphone. This technique is known as "shoulder-surfing," and is
especially common in airports, bus terminals, and train stations. The
code is then sold by the thief for a few dollars. The buyer abusing the
code has no computer expertise, but calls his Mom in New York, Kingston or
Caracas and runs up a huge bill with impunity. The losses from this
primitive phreaking activity are far, far greater than the monetary losses
caused by computer-intruding hackers.
In the mid-to-late 1980s, until the introduction of sterner telco
security measures, *computerized* code theft worked like a charm, and was
virtually omnipresent throughout the digital underground, among phreaks
and hackers alike. This was accomplished through programming one's
computer to try random code numbers over the telephone until one of them
worked. Simple programs to do this were widely available in the
underground; a computer running all night was likely to come up with a
dozen or so useful hits. This could be repeated week after week until one
had a large library of stolen codes.
Nowadays, the computerized dialling of hundreds of numbers can be
detected within hours and swiftly traced. If a stolen code is repeatedly
abused, this too can be detected within a few hours. But for years in the
1980s, the publication of stolen codes was a kind of elementary etiquette
for fledgling hackers. The simplest way to establish your bona-fides as a
raider was to steal a code through repeated random dialling and offer it
to the "community" for use. Codes could be both stolen, and used, simply
and easily from the safety of one's own bedroom, with very little fear of
detection or punishment.
Before computers and their phone-line modems entered American homes
in gigantic numbers, phone phreaks had their own special
telecommunications hardware gadget, the famous "blue box." This fraud
device (now rendered increasingly useless by the digital evolution of the
phone system) could trick switching systems into granting free access to
long-distance lines. It did this by mimicking the system's own signal, a
tone of 2600 hertz.
Steven Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple Computer, Inc.,
once dabbled in selling blue-boxes in college dorms in California. For
many, in the early days of phreaking, blue-boxing was scarcely perceived
as "theft," but rather as a fun (if sneaky) way to use excess phone
capacity harmlessly. After all, the long-distance lines were *just
sitting there*.... Whom did it hurt, really? If you're not *damaging* the
system, and you're not *using up any tangible resource,* and if nobody
*finds out* what you did, then what real harm have you done? What exactly
*have* you "stolen," anyway? If a tree falls in the forest and nobody
hears it, how much is the noise worth? Even now this remains a rather
Blue-boxing was no joke to the phone companies, however. Indeed,
when *Ramparts* magazine, a radical publication in California, printed the
wiring schematics necessary to create a mute box in June 1972, the
magazine was seized by police and Pacific Bell phone- company officials.
The mute box, a blue-box variant, allowed its user to receive
long-distance calls free of charge to the caller. This device was closely
described in a *Ramparts* article wryly titled "Regulating the Phone
Company In Your Home." Publication of this article was held to be in
violation of Californian State Penal Code section 502.7, which outlaws
ownership of wire-fraud devices and the selling of "plans or instructions
for any instrument, apparatus, or device intended to avoid telephone toll
Issues of *Ramparts* were recalled or seized on the newsstands, and
the resultant loss of income helped put the magazine out of business.
This was an ominous precedent for free-expression issues, but the telco's
crushing of a radical-fringe magazine passed without serious challenge at
the time. Even in the freewheeling California 1970s, it was widely felt
that there was something sacrosanct about what the phone company knew;
that the telco had a legal and moral right to protect itself by shutting
off the flow of such illicit information. Most telco information was so
"specialized" that it would scarcely be understood by any honest member of
the public. If not published, it would not be missed. To print such
material did not seem part of the legitimate role of a free press.
In 1990 there would be a similar telco-inspired attack on the
electronic phreak/hacking "magazine" *Phrack.* The *Phrack* legal case
became a central issue in the Hacker Crackdown, and gave rise to great
controversy. *Phrack* would also be shut down, for a time, at least, but
this time both the telcos and their law-enforcement allies would pay a
much larger price for their actions. The *Phrack* case will be examined
in detail, later.
Phone-phreaking as a social practice is still very much alive at this
moment. Today, phone-phreaking is thriving much more vigorously than the
better-known and worse-feared practice of "computer hacking." New forms
of phreaking are spreading rapidly, following new vulnerabilities in
sophisticated phone services.
Cellular phones are especially vulnerable; their chips can be
re-programmed to present a false caller ID and avoid billing. Doing so
also avoids police tapping, making cellular-phone abuse a favorite among
drug-dealers. "Call-sell operations" using pirate cellular phones can, and
have, been run right out of the backs of cars, which move from "cell" to
"cell" in the local phone system, retailing stolen long-distance service,
like some kind of demented electronic version of the neighborhood
Private branch-exchange phone systems in large corporations can be
penetrated; phreaks dial-up a local company, enter its internal
phone-system, hack it, then use the company's own PBX system to dial back
out over the public network, causing the company to be stuck with the
resulting long-distance bill. This technique is known as "diverting."
"Diverting" can be very costly, especially because phreaks tend to travel
in packs and never stop talking. Perhaps the worst by-product of this
"PBX fraud" is that victim companies and telcos have sued one another over
the financial responsibility for the stolen calls, thus enriching not only
shabby phreaks but well-paid lawyers.
"Voice-mail systems" can also be abused; phreaks can seize their
own sections of these sophisticated electronic answering machines, and use
them for trading codes or knowledge of illegal techniques. Voice-mail
abuse does not hurt the company directly, but finding supposedly empty
slots in your company's answering machine all crammed with phreaks eagerly
chattering and hey-duding one another in impenetrable jargon can cause
sensations of almost mystical repulsion and dread.
Worse yet, phreaks have sometimes been known to react truculently
to attempts to "clean up" the voice-mail system. Rather than humbly
acquiescing to being thrown out of their playground, they may very well
call up the company officials at work (or at home) and loudly demand free
voice-mail addresses of their very own. Such bullying is taken very
seriously by spooked victims.
Acts of phreak revenge against straight people are rare, but
voice-mail systems are especially tempting and vulnerable, and an
infestation of angry phreaks in one's voice-mail system is no joke. They
can erase legitimate messages; or spy on private messages; or harass users
with recorded taunts and obscenities. They've even been known to seize
control of voice-mail security, and lock out legitimate users, or even
shut down the system entirely.
Cellular phone-calls, cordless phones, and ship-to- shore telephony
can all be monitored by various forms of radio; this kind of "passive
monitoring" is spreading explosively today. Technically eavesdropping on
other people's cordless and cellular phone-calls is the fastest- growing
area in phreaking today. This practice strongly appeals to the lust for
power and conveys gratifying sensations of technical superiority over the
eavesdropping victim. Monitoring is rife with all manner of tempting evil
mischief. Simple prurient snooping is by far the most common activity.
But credit-card numbers unwarily spoken over the phone can be recorded,
stolen and used. And tapping people's phone-calls (whether through active
telephone taps or passive radio monitors) does lend itself conveniently to
activities like blackmail, industrial espionage, and political dirty
It should be repeated that telecommunications fraud, the theft of
phone service, causes vastly greater monetary losses than the practice of
entering into computers by stealth. Hackers are mostly young suburban
American white males, and exist in their hundreds -- but "phreaks" come
from both sexes and from many nationalities, ages and ethnic backgrounds,
and are flourishing in the thousands.
The term "hacker" has had an unfortunate history. This book, *The
Hacker Crackdown,* has little to say about "hacking" in its finer,
original sense. The term can signify the free-wheeling intellectual
exploration of the highest and deepest potential of computer systems.
Hacking can describe the determination to make access to computers and
information as free and open as possible. Hacking can involve the
heartfelt conviction that beauty can be found in computers, that the fine
aesthetic in a perfect program can liberate the mind and spirit. This is
"hacking" as it was defined in Steven Levy's much-praised history of the
pioneer computer milieu, *Hackers,* published in 1984.
Hackers of all kinds are absolutely soaked through with heroic
anti-bureaucratic sentiment. Hackers long for recognition as a
praiseworthy cultural archetype, the postmodern electronic equivalent of
the cowboy and mountain man. Whether they deserve such a reputation is
something for history to decide. But many hackers -- including those
outlaw hackers who are computer intruders, and whose activities are
defined as criminal -- actually attempt to *live up to* this techno-cowboy
reputation. And given that electronics and telecommunications are still
largely unexplored territories, there is simply *no telling* what hackers
For some people, this freedom is the very breath of oxygen, the
inventive spontaneity that makes life worth living and that flings open
doors to marvellous possibility and individual empowerment. But for many
people -- and increasingly so -- the hacker is an ominous figure, a smart-
aleck sociopath ready to burst out of his basement wilderness and savage
other people's lives for his own anarchical convenience.
Any form of power without responsibility, without direct and formal
checks and balances, is frightening to people -- and reasonably so. It
should be frankly admitted that hackers *are* frightening, and that the
basis of this fear is not irrational.
Fear of hackers goes well beyond the fear of merely criminal
Subversion and manipulation of the phone system is an act with
disturbing political overtones. In America, computers and telephones are
potent symbols of organized authority and the technocratic business elite.
But there is an element in American culture that has always strongly
rebelled against these symbols; rebelled against all large industrial
computers and all phone companies. A certain anarchical tinge deep in the
American soul delights in causing confusion and pain to all bureaucracies,
including technological ones.
There is sometimes malice and vandalism in this attitude, but it is a
deep and cherished part of the American national character. The outlaw,
the rebel, the rugged individual, the pioneer, the sturdy Jeffersonian
yeoman, the private citizen resisting interference in his pursuit of
happiness -- these are figures that all Americans recognize, and that many
will strongly applaud and defend.
Many scrupulously law-abiding citizens today do cutting-edge work
with electronics -- work that has already had tremendous social influence
and will have much more in years to come. In all truth, these talented,
hardworking, law-abiding, mature, adult people are far more disturbing to
the peace and order of the current status quo than any scofflaw group of
romantic teenage punk kids. These law-abiding hackers have the power,
ability, and willingness to influence other people's lives quite
unpredictably. They have means, motive, and opportunity to meddle
drastically with the American social order. When corralled into
governments, universities, or large multinational companies, and forced to
follow rulebooks and wear suits and ties, they at least have some
conventional halters on their freedom of action. But when loosed alone,
or in small groups, and fired by imagination and the entrepreneurial
spirit, they can move mountains - - causing landslides that will likely
crash directly into your office and living room.
These people, as a class, instinctively recognize that a public,
politicized attack on hackers will eventually spread to them -- that the
term "hacker," once demonized, might be used to knock their hands off the
levers of power and choke them out of existence. There are hackers today
who fiercely and publicly resist any besmirching of the noble title of
hacker. Naturally and understandably, they deeply resent the attack on
their values implicit in using the word "hacker" as a synonym for
This book, sadly but in my opinion unavoidably, rather adds to the
degradation of the term. It concerns itself mostly with "hacking" in its
commonest latter-day definition, i.e., intruding into computer systems by
stealth and without permission.
The term "hacking" is used routinely today by almost all law
enforcement officials with any professional interest in computer fraud and
abuse. American police describe almost any crime committed with, by,
through, or against a computer as hacking.
Most importantly, "hacker" is what computer- intruders choose to call
*themselves.* Nobody who "hacks" into systems willingly describes himself
(rarely, herself) as a "computer intruder," "computer trespasser,"
"cracker," "wormer," "darkside hacker" or "high tech street gangster."
Several other demeaning terms have been invented in the hope that the
press and public will leave the original sense of the word alone. But few
people actually use these terms. (I exempt the term "cyberpunk," which a
few hackers and law enforcement people actually do use. The term
"cyberpunk" is drawn from literary criticism and has some odd and unlikely
resonances, but, like hacker, cyberpunk too has become a criminal
In any case, breaking into computer systems was hardly alien to the
original hacker tradition. The first tottering systems of the 1960s
required fairly extensive internal surgery merely to function day-by-day.
Their users "invaded" the deepest, most arcane recesses of their operating
software almost as a matter of routine. "Computer security" in these
early, primitive systems was at best an afterthought. What security there
was, was entirely physical, for it was assumed that anyone allowed near
this expensive, arcane hardware would be a fully qualified professional
In a campus environment, though, this meant that grad students,
teaching assistants, undergraduates, and eventually, all manner of
dropouts and hangers-on ended up accessing and often running the works.
Universities, even modern universities, are not in the business of
maintaining security over information. On the contrary, universities, as
institutions, pre-date the "information economy" by many centuries and are
not- for-profit cultural entities, whose reason for existence
(purportedly) is to discover truth, codify it through techniques of
scholarship, and then teach it. Universities are meant to *pass the torch
of civilization,* not just download data into student skulls, and the
values of the academic community are strongly at odds with those of all
would-be information empires. Teachers at all levels, from kindergarten
up, have proven to be shameless and persistent software and data pirates.
Universities do not merely "leak information" but vigorously broadcast
This clash of values has been fraught with controversy. Many hackers
of the 1960s remember their professional apprenticeship as a long guerilla
war against the uptight mainframe-computer "information priesthood."
These computer-hungry youngsters had to struggle hard for access to
computing power, and many of them were not above certain, er, shortcuts.
But, over the years, this practice freed computing from the sterile
reserve of lab-coated technocrats and was largely responsible for the
explosive growth of computing in general society -- especially *personal*
Access to technical power acted like catnip on certain of these
youngsters. Most of the basic techniques of computer intrusion: password
cracking, trapdoors, backdoors, trojan horses -- were invented in college
environments in the 1960s, in the early days of network computing. Some
off-the-cuff experience at computer intrusion was to be in the informal
resume of most "hackers" and many future industry giants. Outside of the
tiny cult of computer enthusiasts, few people thought much about the
implications of "breaking into" computers. This sort of activity had not
yet been publicized, much less criminalized.
In the 1960s, definitions of "property" and "privacy" had not yet
been extended to cyberspace. Computers were not yet indispensable to
society. There were no vast databanks of vulnerable, proprietary
information stored in computers, which might be accessed, copied without
permission, erased, altered, or sabotaged. The stakes were low in the
early days -- but they grew every year, exponentially, as computers
By the 1990s, commercial and political pressures had become
overwhelming, and they broke the social boundaries of the hacking
subculture. Hacking had become too important to be left to the hackers.
Society was now forced to tackle the intangible nature of
cyberspace-as-property, cyberspace as privately-owned unreal-estate. In
the new, severe, responsible, high- stakes context of the "Information
Society" of the 1990s, "hacking" was called into question.
What did it mean to break into a computer without permission and use
its computational power, or look around inside its files without hurting
anything? What were computer-intruding hackers, anyway -- how should
society, and the law, best define their actions? Were they just
*browsers,* harmless intellectual explorers? Were they *voyeurs,* snoops,
invaders of privacy? Should they be sternly treated as potential *agents
of espionage,* or perhaps as *industrial spies?* Or were they best defined
as *trespassers,* a very common teenage misdemeanor? Was hacking *theft
of service?* (After all, intruders were getting someone else's computer to
carry out their orders, without permission and without paying). Was
hacking *fraud?* Maybe it was best described as *impersonation.* The
commonest mode of computer intrusion was (and is) to swipe or snoop
somebody else's password, and then enter the computer in the guise of
another person -- who is commonly stuck with the blame and the bills.
Perhaps a medical metaphor was better -- hackers should be defined as
"sick," as *computer addicts* unable to control their irresponsible,
But these weighty assessments meant little to the people who were
actually being judged. From inside the underground world of hacking
itself, all these perceptions seem quaint, wrongheaded, stupid, or
meaningless. The most important self-perception of underground hackers --
from the 1960s, right through to the present day -- is that they are an
*elite.* The day-to-day struggle in the underground is not over
sociological definitions -- who cares? -- but for power, knowledge, and
status among one's peers.
When you are a hacker, it is your own inner conviction of your elite
status that enables you to break, or let us say "transcend," the rules.
It is not that *all* rules go by the board. The rules habitually broken
by hackers are *unimportant* rules -- the rules of dopey greedhead telco
bureaucrats and pig-ignorant government pests.
Hackers have their *own* rules, which separate behavior which is cool
and elite, from behavior which is rodentlike, stupid and losing. These
"rules," however, are mostly unwritten and enforced by peer pressure and
tribal feeling. Like all rules that depend on the unspoken conviction
that everybody else is a good old boy, these rules are ripe for abuse.
The mechanisms of hacker peer- pressure, "teletrials" and ostracism, are
rarely used and rarely work. Back-stabbing slander, threats, and
electronic harassment are also freely employed in down- and-dirty
intrahacker feuds, but this rarely forces a rival out of the scene
entirely. The only real solution for the problem of an utterly losing,
treacherous and rodentlike hacker is to *turn him in to the police.*
Unlike the Mafia or Medellin Cartel, the hacker elite cannot simply
execute the bigmouths, creeps and troublemakers among their ranks, so they
turn one another in with astonishing frequency.
There is no tradition of silence or *omerta* in the hacker
underworld. Hackers can be shy, even reclusive, but when they do talk,
hackers tend to brag, boast and strut. Almost everything hackers do is
*invisible;* if they don't brag, boast, and strut about it, then *nobody
will ever know.* If you don't have something to brag, boast, and strut
about, then nobody in the underground will recognize you and favor you
with vital cooperation and respect.
The way to win a solid reputation in the underground is by telling
other hackers things that could only have been learned by exceptional
cunning and stealth. Forbidden knowledge, therefore, is the basic currency
of the digital underground, like seashells among Trobriand Islanders.
Hackers hoard this knowledge, and dwell upon it obsessively, and refine
it, and bargain with it, and talk and talk about it.
Many hackers even suffer from a strange obsession to *teach* -- to
spread the ethos and the knowledge of the digital underground. They'll do
this even when it gains them no particular advantage and presents a grave
And when that risk catches up with them, they will go right on
teaching and preaching -- to a new audience this time, their interrogators
from law enforcement. Almost every hacker arrested tells everything he
knows -- all about his friends, his mentors, his disciples -- legends,
threats, horror stories, dire rumors, gossip, hallucinations. This is, of
course, convenient for law enforcement -- except when law enforcement
begins to believe hacker legendry.
Phone phreaks are unique among criminals in their willingness to call
up law enforcement officials -- in the office, at their homes -- and give
them an extended piece of their mind. It is hard not to interpret this as
*begging for arrest,* and in fact it is an act of incredible
foolhardiness. Police are naturally nettled by these acts of chutzpah and
will go well out of their way to bust these flaunting idiots. But it can
also be interpreted as a product of a world-view so elitist, so closed and
hermetic, that electronic police are simply not perceived as "police," but
rather as *enemy phone phreaks* who should be scolded into behaving
Hackers at their most grandiloquent perceive themselves as the elite
pioneers of a new electronic world. Attempts to make them obey the
democratically established laws of contemporary American society are seen
as repression and persecution. After all, they argue, if Alexander Graham
Bell had gone along with the rules of the Western Union telegraph company,
there would have been no telephones. If Jobs and Wozniak had believed
that IBM was the be-all and end-all, there would have been no personal
computers. If Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had tried to "work
within the system" there would have been no United States.
Not only do hackers privately believe this as an article of faith,
but they have been known to write ardent manifestos about it. Here are
some revealing excerpts from an especially vivid hacker manifesto: "The
Techno- Revolution" by "Dr. Crash," which appeared in electronic form in
*Phrack* Volume 1, Issue 6, Phile 3.
"To fully explain the true motives behind hacking, we must first take
a quick look into the past. In the 1960s, a group of MIT students built
the first modern computer system. This wild, rebellious group of young
men were the first to bear the name 'hackers.' The systems that they
developed were intended to be used to solve world problems and to benefit
all of mankind.
"As we can see, this has not been the case. The computer system has
been solely in the hands of big businesses and the government. The
wonderful device meant to enrich life has become a weapon which
dehumanizes people. To the government and large businesses, people are no
more than disk space, and the government doesn't use computers to arrange
aid for the poor, but to control nuclear death weapons. The average
American can only have access to a small microcomputer which is worth only
a fraction of what they pay for it. The businesses keep the true
state-of-the-art equipment away from the people behind a steel wall of
incredibly high prices and bureaucracy. It is because of this state of
affairs that hacking was born.(...)
"Of course, the government doesn't want the monopoly of technology
broken, so they have outlawed hacking and arrest anyone who is
caught.(...) The phone company is another example of technology abused and
kept from people with high prices.(...)
"Hackers often find that their existing equipment, due to the
monopoly tactics of computer companies, is inefficient for their purposes.
Due to the exorbitantly high prices, it is impossible to legally purchase
the necessary equipment. This need has given still another segment of the
fight: Credit Carding. Carding is a way of obtaining the necessary goods
without paying for them. It is again due to the companies' stupidity that
Carding is so easy, and shows that the world's businesses are in the hands
of those with considerably less technical know-how than we, the hackers.
"Hacking must continue. We must train newcomers to the art of
hacking.(....) And whatever you do, continue the fight. Whether you know
it or not, if you are a hacker, you are a revolutionary. Don't worry,
you're on the right side."
The defense of "carding" is rare. Most hackers regard credit-card
theft as "poison" to the underground, a sleazy and immoral effort that,
worse yet, is hard to get away with. Nevertheless, manifestos advocating
credit- card theft, the deliberate crashing of computer systems, and even
acts of violent physical destruction such as vandalism and arson do exist
in the underground. These boasts and threats are taken quite seriously by
the police. And not every hacker is an abstract, Platonic computer- nerd.
Some few are quite experienced at picking locks, robbing phone-trucks, and
breaking and entering buildings.
Hackers vary in their degree of hatred for authority and the violence
of their rhetoric. But, at a bottom line, they are scofflaws. They don't
regard the current rules of electronic behavior as respectable efforts to
preserve law and order and protect public safety. They regard these laws
as immoral efforts by soulless corporations to protect their profit
margins and to crush dissidents. "Stupid" people, including police,
businessmen, politicians, and journalists, simply have no right to judge
the actions of those possessed of genius, techno-revolutionary intentions,
and technical expertise.
Hackers are generally teenagers and college kids not engaged in
earning a living. They often come from fairly well-to-do middle-class
backgrounds, and are markedly anti-materialistic (except, that is, when it
comes to computer equipment). Anyone motivated by greed for mere money
(as opposed to the greed for power, knowledge and status) is swiftly
written-off as a narrow- minded breadhead whose interests can only be
corrupt and contemptible. Having grown up in the 1970s and 1980s, the
young Bohemians of the digital underground regard straight society as
awash in plutocratic corruption, where everyone from the President down is
for sale and whoever has the gold makes the rules.
Interestingly, there's a funhouse-mirror image of this attitude on
the other side of the conflict. The police are also one of the most
markedly anti-materialistic groups in American society, motivated not by
mere money but by ideals of service, justice, esprit-de-corps, and, of
course, their own brand of specialized knowledge and power. Remarkably,
the propaganda war between cops and hackers has always involved angry
allegations that the other side is trying to make a sleazy buck. Hackers
consistently sneer that anti-phreak prosecutors are angling for cushy jobs
as telco lawyers and that computer- crime police are aiming to cash in
later as well-paid computer-security consultants in the private sector.
For their part, police publicly conflate all hacking crimes with
robbing payphones with crowbars. Allegations of "monetary losses" from
computer intrusion are notoriously inflated. The act of illicitly copying
a document from a computer is morally equated with directly robbing a
company of, say, half a million dollars. The teenage computer intruder in
possession of this "proprietary" document has certainly not sold it for
such a sum, would likely have little idea how to sell it at all, and quite
probably doesn't even understand what he has. He has not made a cent in
profit from his felony but is still morally equated with a thief who has
robbed the church poorbox and lit out for Brazil.
Police want to believe that all hackers are thieves. It is a tortuous
and almost unbearable act for the American justice system to put people in
jail because they want to learn things which are forbidden for them to
know. In an American context, almost any pretext for punishment is better
than jailing people to protect certain restricted kinds of information.
Nevertheless, *policing information* is part and parcel of the struggle
This dilemma is well exemplified by the remarkable activities of
"Emmanuel Goldstein," editor and publisher of a print magazine known as
*2600: The Hacker Quarterly.* Goldstein was an English major at Long
Island's State University of New York in the '70s, when he became involved
with the local college radio station. His growing interest in electronics
caused him to drift into Yippie *TAP* circles and thus into the digital
underground, where he became a self-described techno- rat. His magazine
publishes techniques of computer intrusion and telephone "exploration" as
well as gloating exposes of telco misdeeds and governmental failings.
Goldstein lives quietly and very privately in a large, crumbling
Victorian mansion in Setauket, New York. The seaside house is decorated
with telco decals, chunks of driftwood, and the basic bric-a-brac of a
hippie crash-pad. He is unmarried, mildly unkempt, and survives mostly on
TV dinners and turkey-stuffing eaten straight out of the bag. Goldstein
is a man of considerable charm and fluency, with a brief, disarming smile
and the kind of pitiless, stubborn, thoroughly recidivist integrity that
America's electronic police find genuinely alarming.
Goldstein took his nom-de-plume, or "handle," from a character in
Orwell's *1984,* which may be taken, correctly, as a symptom of the
gravity of his sociopolitical worldview. He is not himself a practicing
computer intruder, though he vigorously abets these actions, especially
when they are pursued against large corporations or governmental agencies.
Nor is he a thief, for he loudly scorns mere theft of phone service, in
favor of 'exploring and manipulating the system.' He is probably best
described and understood as a *dissident.*
Weirdly, Goldstein is living in modern America under conditions very
similar to those of former East European intellectual dissidents. In
other words, he flagrantly espouses a value-system that is deeply and
irrevocably opposed to the system of those in power and the police. The
values in *2600* are generally expressed in terms that are ironic,
sarcastic, paradoxical, or just downright confused. But there's no
mistaking their radically anti-authoritarian tenor. *2600* holds that
technical power and specialized knowledge, of any kind obtainable, belong
by right in the hands of those individuals brave and bold enough to
discover them -- by whatever means necessary. Devices, laws, or systems
that forbid access, and the free spread of knowledge, are provocations
that any free and self-respecting hacker should relentlessly attack. The
"privacy" of governments, corporations and other soulless technocratic
organizations should never be protected at the expense of the liberty and
free initiative of the individual techno-rat.
However, in our contemporary workaday world, both governments and
corporations are very anxious indeed to police information which is
secret, proprietary, restricted, confidential, copyrighted, patented,
hazardous, illegal, unethical, embarrassing, or otherwise sensitive. This
makes Goldstein persona non grata, and his philosophy a threat.
Very little about the conditions of Goldstein's daily life would
astonish, say, Vaclav Havel. (We may note in passing that President Havel
once had his word-processor confiscated by the Czechoslovak police.)
Goldstein lives by *samizdat,* acting semi-openly as a data-center for the
underground, while challenging the powers-that-be to abide by their own
stated rules: freedom of speech and the First Amendment.
Goldstein thoroughly looks and acts the part of techno-rat, with
shoulder-length ringlets and a piratical black fisherman's-cap set at a
rakish angle. He often shows up like Banquo's ghost at meetings of
computer professionals, where he listens quietly, half-smiling and taking
Computer professionals generally meet publicly, and find it very
difficult to rid themselves of Goldstein and his ilk without extralegal
and unconstitutional actions. Sympathizers, many of them quite respectable
people with responsible jobs, admire Goldstein's attitude and
surreptitiously pass him information. An unknown but presumably large
proportion of Goldstein's 2,000-plus readership are telco security
personnel and police, who are forced to subscribe to *2600* to stay
abreast of new developments in hacking. They thus find themselves *paying
this guy's rent* while grinding their teeth in anguish, a situation that
would have delighted Abbie Hoffman (one of Goldstein's few idols).
Goldstein is probably the best-known public representative of the
hacker underground today, and certainly the best-hated. Police regard him
as a Fagin, a corrupter of youth, and speak of him with untempered
loathing. He is quite an accomplished gadfly.
After the Martin Luther King Day Crash of 1990, Goldstein, for
instance, adeptly rubbed salt into the wound in the pages of *2600.*
"Yeah, it was fun for the phone phreaks as we watched the network
crumble," he admitted cheerfully. "But it was also an ominous sign of
what's to come... Some AT&T people, aided by well-meaning but ignorant
media, were spreading the notion that many companies had the same software
and therefore could face the same problem someday. Wrong. This was
entirely an AT&T software deficiency. Of course, other companies could
face entirely *different* software problems. But then, so too could
After a technical discussion of the system's failings, the Long
Island techno-rat went on to offer thoughtful criticism to the gigantic
multinational's hundreds of professionally qualified engineers. "What we
don't know is how a major force in communications like AT&T could be so
sloppy. What happened to backups? Sure, computer systems go down all the
time, but people making phone calls are not the same as people logging on
to computers. We must make that distinction. It's not acceptable for the
phone system or any other essential service to 'go down.' If we continue
to trust technology without understanding it, we can look forward to many
variations on this theme.
"AT&T owes it to its customers to be prepared to *instantly* switch
to another network if something strange and unpredictable starts
occurring. The news here isn't so much the failure of a computer program,
but the failure of AT&T's entire structure."
The very idea of this.... this *person*.... offering "advice" about
"AT&T's entire structure" is more than some people can easily bear. How
dare this near-criminal dictate what is or isn't "acceptable" behavior
from AT&T? Especially when he's publishing, in the very same issue,
detailed schematic diagrams for creating various switching-network
signalling tones unavailable to the public.
"See what happens when you drop a 'silver box' tone or two down your
local exchange or through different long distance service carriers,"
advises *2600* contributor "Mr. Upsetter" in "How To Build a Signal Box."
"If you experiment systematically and keep good records, you will surely
discover something interesting."
This is, of course, the scientific method, generally regarded as a
praiseworthy activity and one of the flowers of modern civilization. One
can indeed learn a great deal with this sort of structured intellectual
activity. Telco employees regard this mode of "exploration" as akin to
flinging sticks of dynamite into their pond to see what lives on the
*2600* has been published consistently since 1984. It has also run a
bulletin board computer system, printed *2600* T-shirts, taken fax
calls... The Spring 1991 issue has an interesting announcement on page
45: "We just discovered an extra set of wires attached to our fax line
and heading up the pole. (They've since been clipped.) Your faxes to us
and to anyone else could be monitored."
In the worldview of *2600,* the tiny band of techno- rat brothers
(rarely, sisters) are a beseiged vanguard of the truly free and honest.
The rest of the world is a maelstrom of corporate crime and high-level
governmental corruption, occasionally tempered with well-meaning
ignorance. To read a few issues in a row is to enter a nightmare akin to
Solzhenitsyn's, somewhat tempered by the fact that *2600* is often
Goldstein did not become a target of the Hacker Crackdown, though he
protested loudly, eloquently, and publicly about it, and it added
considerably to his fame. It was not that he is not regarded as dangerous,
because he is so regarded. Goldstein has had brushes with the law in the
past: in 1985, a *2600* bulletin board computer was seized by the FBI,
and some software on it was formally declared "a burglary tool in the form
of a computer program." But Goldstein escaped direct repression in 1990,
because his magazine is printed on paper, and recognized as subject to
Constitutional freedom of the press protection. As was seen in the
*Ramparts* case, this is far from an absolute guarantee. Still, as a
practical matter, shutting down *2600* by court-order would create so much
legal hassle that it is simply unfeasible, at least for the present.
Throughout 1990, both Goldstein and his magazine were peevishly thriving.
Instead, the Crackdown of 1990 would concern itself with the
computerized version of forbidden data. The crackdown itself, first and
foremost, was about *bulletin board systems.* Bulletin Board Systems, most
often known by the ugly and un-pluralizable acronym "BBS," are the
life-blood of the digital underground. Boards were also central to law
enforcement's tactics and strategy in the Hacker Crackdown.
A "bulletin board system" can be formally defined as a computer which
serves as an information and message- passing center for users dialing-up
over the phone-lines through the use of modems. A "modem," or modulator-
demodulator, is a device which translates the digital impulses of
computers into audible analog telephone signals, and vice versa. Modems
connect computers to phones and thus to each other.
Large-scale mainframe computers have been connected since the 1960s,
but *personal* computers, run by individuals out of their homes, were
first networked in the late 1970s. The "board" created by Ward
Christensen and Randy Suess in February 1978, in Chicago, Illinois, is
generally regarded as the first personal-computer bulletin board system
worthy of the name.
Boards run on many different machines, employing many different kinds
of software. Early boards were crude and buggy, and their managers, known
as "system operators" or "sysops," were hard-working technical experts who
wrote their own software. But like most everything else in the world of
electronics, boards became faster, cheaper, better-designed, and generally
far more sophisticated throughout the 1980s. They also moved swiftly out
of the hands of pioneers and into those of the general public. By 1985
there were something in the neighborhood of 4,000 boards in America. By
1990 it was calculated, vaguely, that there were about 30,000 boards in
the US, with uncounted thousands overseas.
Computer bulletin boards are unregulated enterprises. Running a
board is a rough-and-ready, catch- as-catch-can proposition. Basically,
anybody with a computer, modem, software and a phone-line can start a
board. With second-hand equipment and public-domain free software, the
price of a board might be quite small -- less than it would take to
publish a magazine or even a decent pamphlet. Entrepreneurs eagerly sell
bulletin- board software, and will coach nontechnical amateur sysops in
Boards are not "presses." They are not magazines, or libraries, or
phones, or CB radios, or traditional cork bulletin boards down at the
local laundry, though they have some passing resemblance to those earlier
media. Boards are a new medium -- they may even be a *large number* of new
Consider these unique characteristics: boards are cheap, yet they
can have a national, even global reach. Boards can be contacted from
anywhere in the global telephone network, at *no cost* to the person
running the board -- the caller pays the phone bill, and if the caller is
local, the call is free. Boards do not involve an editorial elite
addressing a mass audience. The "sysop" of a board is not an exclusive
publisher or writer -- he is managing an electronic salon, where
individuals can address the general public, play the part of the general
public, and also exchange private mail with other individuals. And the
"conversation" on boards, though fluid, rapid, and highly interactive, is
not spoken, but written. It is also relatively anonymous, sometimes
And because boards are cheap and ubiquitous, regulations and
licensing requirements would likely be practically unenforceable. It
would almost be easier to "regulate" "inspect" and "license" the content
of private mail -- probably more so, since the mail system is operated by
the federal government. Boards are run by individuals, independently,
entirely at their own whim.
For the sysop, the cost of operation is not the primary limiting
factor. Once the investment in a computer and modem has been made, the
only steady cost is the charge for maintaining a phone line (or several
phone lines). The primary limits for sysops are time and energy. Boards
require upkeep. New users are generally "validated" -- they must be
issued individual passwords, and called at home by voice-phone, so that
their identity can be verified. Obnoxious users, who exist in plenty,
must be chided or purged. Proliferating messages must be deleted when
they grow old, so that the capacity of the system is not overwhelmed. And
software programs (if such things are kept on the board) must be examined
for possible computer viruses. If there is a financial charge to use the
board (increasingly common, especially in larger and fancier systems) then
accounts must be kept, and users must be billed. And if the board crashes
-- a very common occurrence -- then repairs must be made.
Boards can be distinguished by the amount of effort spent in
regulating them. First, we have the completely open board, whose sysop is
off chugging brews and watching re-runs while his users generally
degenerate over time into peevish anarchy and eventual silence. Second
comes the supervised board, where the sysop breaks in every once in a
while to tidy up, calm brawls, issue announcements, and rid the community
of dolts and troublemakers. Third is the heavily supervised board, which
sternly urges adult and responsible behavior and swiftly edits any message
considered offensive, impertinent, illegal or irrelevant. And last comes
the completely edited "electronic publication," which is presented to a
silent audience which is not allowed to respond directly in any way.
Boards can also be grouped by their degree of anonymity. There is
the completely anonymous board, where everyone uses pseudonyms --
"handles" -- and even the sysop is unaware of the user's true identity.
The sysop himself is likely pseudonymous on a board of this type. Second,
and rather more common, is the board where the sysop knows (or thinks he
knows) the true names and addresses of all users, but the users don't know
one another's names and may not know his. Third is the board where
everyone has to use real names, and roleplaying and pseudonymous posturing
Boards can be grouped by their immediacy. "Chat- lines" are boards
linking several users together over several different phone-lines
simultaneously, so that people exchange messages at the very moment that
they type. (Many large boards feature "chat" capabilities along with