The following messages and text give some background on Operation Sun Devil,
the recent Secret Service operation to crack down on hackers. Also raises
some very important questions re: computer freedom and the extension of the
First Amendment to electronic speech.
July 27, 1990
Download Date:07/27/90 from The Meta Network
Item 189 23-JUL-90 21:11 Gordon Cook
Operation Sun Devil
I just read, on another Caucus system, an absolutely fascinating article
on this medium and the potential harmful effects to its unregulated use of
government misunderstanding of it. It is by John Barlow the grateful dead
lyricist and relates his experience with the hackers conference featured
in Harpers in March that Dave Hughes clued us into.
It shows how Barlow first feared the hackers and then changed his opinion
of them when he met some in person. It then also shows how almost all the
hackers were arrested by the secret service in OPERATION SUN DEVIL,
(facilitated by their appearance in Harpers?) and how the service sent an
agent to interview Barlow at his Wyoming ranch because it heard that he
might have received a part of the source code for the Macintosh ROM chip.
The same with Mitch Kapor. It in effect gives Barlow's side of how he
came to be a co-founder with Kapor of the Foundation for Computer Liberty.
The story is FASCINATING and should be at least skimmed by everyone who
cares about this medium!
What's more I understand that Mitch has an id here and logs on every once
in a while. I wish we could engage him in some conversations about his
new foundation and have an item here to follow the sun devil operation.
It NEEDS following and Barlow's piece has convinced me that the major
press does NOT understand the issues!!!
I think that Dave Hughes has some text on the foundation and it's charter
which maybe he will favor us with.
I have Barlow's article which at 66,000 bytes is LONG! I won't upload it
before my new 2400 baud hayes modem arrives tomorrow that I promise! But
I think it should be uploaded as a response to this item or if not
SOMEWHERE in SALON where a good bunch of people can take a crack at it.
It's a very WELL WRITTEN piece and the full length is necessary for it to
make its impact!!!!
Mitch and John, I REALLY UNDERSTAND **WHY** you have started the
foundation in a way that I did not and could not by reading only your
press release. Stand up and take a well deserved round of bows. It's
heart warming to see some folk with some substantial economic means use it
for the public good!!
I feel like I have just seen the SNAKE PIT that Bill Robinson compared his
first understanding of the oil royalty scam to.
TO ARMS!!! The BARBARIANS are advancing!
CRIME AND PUZZLEMENT
John Perry Barlow [email protected]
Desperados of the DataSphere
So me and my sidekick Howard, we was sitting out in front of the 40 Rod
Saloon one evening when he all of a sudden says, "Lookee here. What
do you reckon?" I look up and there's these two strangers riding into
town. They're young and got kind of a restless, bored way about 'em.
A person don't need both eyes to see they mean trouble... Well, that
wasn't quite how it went. Actually, Howard and I were floating blind as
cave fish in the electronic barrens of the WELL, so the whole incident
passed as words on a display screen:
Howard: Interesting couple of newusers just signed on. One calls himself
acid and the other's optik.
Barlow: Hmmm. What are their real names?
Howard: Check their finger files.
And so I typed !finger acid. Several seconds later the WELL's Sequent
computer sent the following message to my Macintosh in Wyoming:
Login name: acid In real life: Acid Phreak
By this, I knew that the WELL had a new resident and that his corporeal
analog was supposedly called Acid Phreak. Typing !finger optik yielded
results of similar insufficiency, including the claim that someone, somewhere
in the real world, was walking around calling himself Phiber Optik. I doubt
However, associating these sparse data with the knowledge that the WELL
was about to host a conference on computers and security rendered the
conclusion that I had made my first sighting of genuine computer crackers.
As the arrival of an outlaw was a major event to the settlements of the Old
West, so was the appearance of crackers cause for stir on the WELL.
The WELL (or Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) is an example of the latest
thing in frontier villages, the computer bulletin board. In this kind of
small town, Main Street is a central minicomputer to which (in the case of
the WELL) as many as 64 microcomputers may be connected at one time by
phone lines and little blinking boxes called modems.
In this silent world, all conversation is typed. To enter it, one forsakes
body and place and becomes a thing of words alone. You can see what your
neighbors are saying (or recently said), but not what either they or their
physical surroundings look like. Town meetings are continuous and
discussions rage on everything from sexual kinks to depreciation
There are thousands of these nodes in the United States, ranging from PC
clone hamlets of a few users to mainframe metros like CompuServe, with
its 550,000 subscribers. They are used by corporations to transmit
memoranda and spreadsheets, universities to disseminate research, and a
multitude of factions, from apiarists to Zoroastrians, for purposes unique
Whether by one telephonic tendril or millions, they are all connected to
one another. Collectively, they form what their inhabitants call the Net. It
extends across that immense region of electron states, microwaves,
magnetic fields, light pulses and thought which sci-fi writer William
Gibson named Cyberspace.
Cyberspace, in its present condition, has a lot in common with the 19th
Century West. It is vast, unmapped, culturally and legally ambiguous,
verbally terse (unless you happen to be a court stenographer), hard to get
around in, and up for grabs. Large institutions already claim to own the
place, but most of the actual natives are solitary and independent,
sometimes to the point of sociopathy. It is, of course, a perfect breeding
ground for both outlaws and new ideas about liberty.
Recognizing this, Harper's Magazine decided in December, 1989 to hold
one of its periodic Forums on the complex of issues surrounding
computers, information, privacy, and electronic intrusion or "cracking."
Appropriately, they convened their conference in Cyberspace, using the
WELL as the "site."
Harper's invited an odd lot of about 40 participants. These included:
Clifford Stoll, whose book The Cuckoo's Egg details his cunning efforts to
nab a German cracker. John Draper or "Cap'n Crunch," the grand-daddy of
crackers whose blue boxes got Wozniak and Jobs into consumer
electronics. Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly of Whole Earth fame. Steven
Levy, who wrote the seminal Hackers. A retired Air Force colonel named
Dave Hughes. Lee Felsenstein, who designed the Osborne computer and
was once called the "Robespierre of computing." A UNIX wizard and
former hacker named Jeff Poskanzer. There was also a score of aging
techno-hippies, the crackers, and me.
What I was doing there was not precisely clear since I've spent most of my
working years either pushing cows or song-mongering, but I at least
brought to the situation a vivid knowledge of actual cow-towns, having
lived in or around one most of my life.
That and a kind of innocence about both the technology and morality of
Cyberspace which was soon to pass into the confusion of knowledge.
At first, I was inclined toward sympathy with Acid 'n' Optik as well as
their colleagues, Adelaide, Knight Lightning, Taran King, and Emmanuel. I've
always been more comfortable with outlaws than Republicans, despite
having more certain credentials in the latter camp.
But as the Harper's Forum mushroomed into a boom-town of ASCII text
(the participants typing 110,000 words in 10 days), I began to wonder. These
kids were fractious, vulgar, immature, amoral, insulting, and too damned
good at their work.
Worse, they inducted a number of former kids like myself into Middle
Age. The long feared day had finally come when some gunsel would yank
my beard and call me, too accurately, an old fart.
Under ideal circumstances, the blind gropings of bulletin board discourse
force a kind of Noh drama stylization on human commerce. Intemperate
responses, or "flames" as they are called, are common even among
conference participants who understand one another, which, it became
immediately clear, the cyberpunks and techno-hippies did not.
My own initial enthusiasm for the crackers wilted under a steady barrage of
typed testosterone. I quickly remembered I didn't know much about who
they were, what they did, or how they did it. I also remembered stories
about crackers working in league with the Mob, ripping off credit card
numbers and getting paid for them in (stolen) computer equipment.
And I remembered Kevin Mitnik. Mitnik, now 25, is currently serving
federal time for a variety of computer and telephone related crimes. Prior
to incarceration, Mitnik was, by all accounts, a dangerous guy with a
computer. He disrupted phone company operations and arbitrarily
disconnected the phones of celebrities. Like the kid in Wargames, he
broke into the North American Defense Command computer in Colorado
Unlike the kid in Wargames, he made a practice of destroying and altering
data, including the credit information of his probation officer and other
enemies. Digital Equipment claimed that his depredations cost them more
than $4 million in computer downtime and file rebuilding. Eventually, he
was turned in by a friend who, after careful observation, had decided he
was "a menace to society."
His specter began to hang over the conference. After several days of
strained diplomacy, the discussion settled into a moral debate on the ethics
of security and went critical.
The techno-hippies were of the unanimous opinion that, in Dylan's words,
one "must be honest to live outside the law." But these young strangers
apparently lived by no code save those with which they unlocked
forbidden regions of the Net.
They appeared to think that improperly secured systems deserved to be
violated and, by extension, that unlocked houses ought to be robbed. This
latter built particular heat in me since I refuse, on philosophical grounds,
to lock my house.
Civility broke down. We began to see exchanges like:
Dave Hughes: Clifford Stoll said a wise thing that no one has
commented on. That networks are built on trust. If they
aren't, they should be.
Acid Phreak: Yeah. Sure. And we should use the 'honor system' as a
first line of security against hack attempts.
Jef Poskanzer: This guy down the street from me sometimes leaves
his back door unlocked. I told him about it once, but he
still does it. If I had the chance to do it over, I would go
in the back door, shoot him, and take all his money and
It's the only way to get through to him.
Acid Phreak: Jef Poskanker (Puss? Canker? yechh) Anyway, now
when did you first start having these delusions where
computer hacking was even *remotely* similar to
Presented with such a terrifying amalgam of raw youth and apparent
power, we fluttered like a flock of indignant Babbitts around the Status
Quo, defending it heartily. One former hacker howled to the Harper's
editor in charge of the forum, "Do you or do you not have names and
addresses for these criminals?" Though they had committed no obvious
crimes, he was ready to call the police.
They finally got to me with:
Acid: Whoever said they'd leave the door open to
their house... where do you live? (the address)
Leave it to me in mail if you like.
I had never encountered anyone so apparently unworthy of my trust as
these little nihilists. They had me questioning a basic tenet, namely that
the greatest security lies in vulnerability. I decided it was time to put
the principal to the test...
Barlow: Acid. My house is at 372 North Franklin Street in
Pinedale, Wyoming. If you're heading north on
Franklin, you go about two blocks off the main drag
before you run into hay meadow on the left. I've got
the last house before the field. The computer is always
And is that really what you mean? Are you merely just
the kind of little sneak that goes around looking for
easy places to violate? You disappoint me, pal. For all
your James Dean-On-Silicon rhetoric, you're not a
cyberpunk. You're just a punk.
Acid Phreak: Mr. Barlow: Thank you for posting all I need to get
your credit information and a whole lot more! Now,
who is to blame? ME for getting it or YOU for being
such an idiot?! I think this should just about sum
Barlow: Acid, if you've got a lesson to teach me, I hope it's not
that it's idiotic to trust one's fellow man. Life on those
terms would be endless and brutal. I'd try to tell you
something about conscience, but I'd sound like Father
O'Flannigan trying to reform the punk that's about to
gutshoot him. For no more reason that to watch him
But actually, if you take it upon yourself to destroy my
credit, you might do be a favor. I've been looking for
something to put the brakes on my burgeoning
I spent a day wondering whether I was dealing with another Kevin Mitnik
before the other shoe dropped:
Barlow: ... With crackers like acid and optik, the issue is less
intelligence than alienation. Trade their modems for
skateboards and only a slight conceptual shift would
Optik: You have some pair of balls comparing my talent with
that of a skateboarder. Hmmm... This was indeed
boring, but nonetheless:
At which point he downloaded my credit history.
Optik had hacked the core of TRW, an institution which has made my
business (and yours) their business, extracting from it an abbreviated
(and incorrect) version of my personal financial life. With this came the
implication that he and Acid could and would revise it to my disadvantage
if I didn't back off.
I have since learned that while getting someone's TRW file is fairly trivial
changing it is not. But at that time, my assessment of the crackers' black
skills was one of superstitious awe. They were digital brujos about to
zombify my economic soul.
To a middle-class American, one's credit rating has become nearly identical
to his freedom. It now appeared that I was dealing with someone who had
both the means and desire to hoodoo mine, leaving me trapped in a life of
wrinkled bills and money order queues. Never again would I call the
Sharper Image on a whim.
I've been in redneck bars wearing shoulder-length curls, police custody
while on acid, and Harlem after midnight, but no one has ever put the
spook in me quite as Phiber Optik did at that moment. I realized that we
had problems which exceeded the human conductivity of the WELL's
bandwidth. If someone were about to paralyze me with a spell, I wanted a
more visceral sense of him than could fit through a modem.
I e-mailed him asking him to give me a phone call. I told him I wouldn't
insult his skills by giving him my phone number and, with the assurance
conveyed by that challenge, I settled back and waited for the phone to ring.
Which, directly, it did.
In this conversation and the others that followed I encountered an
intelligent, civilized, and surprisingly principled kid of 18 who sounded,
and continues to sound, as though there's little harm in him to man or
data. His cracking impulses seemed purely exploratory, and I've begun to
wonder if we wouldn't also regard spelunkers as desperate criminals if
AT&T owned all the caves.
The terrifying poses which Optik and Acid had been striking on screen
were a media-amplified example of a human adaptation I'd seen before:
One becomes as he is beheld. They were simply living up to what they
thought we, and, more particularly, the editors of Harper's, expected of
them. Like the televised tears of disaster victims, their snarls adapted
easily to mass distribution.
Months later, Harper's took Optik, Acid and me to dinner at a Manhattan
restaurant which, though very fancy, was appropriately Chinese. Acid and
Optik, as material beings, were well-scrubbed and fashionably-clad. They
looked to be dangerous as ducks. But, as Harper's and the rest of the media
have discovered to their delight, the boys had developed distinctly showier
personae for their rambles through the howling wilderness of Cyberspace.
Glittering with spikes of binary chrome, they strode past the kleig lights
and into the digital distance. There they would be outlaws. It was only a
matter of time before they started to believe themselves as bad as they
sounded. And no time at all before everyone else did.
In this, they were like another kid named Billy, many of whose feral deeds
in the pre-civilized West were encouraged by the same dime novelist who
chronicled them. And like Tom Horn, they seemed to have some doubt as
to which side of the law they were on. Acid even expressed an ambition to
work for the government someday, nabbing "terrorists and code abusers."
There is also a frontier ambiguity to the "crimes" the crackers commit.
They are not exactly stealing VCR's. Copying a text file from TRW doesn't
deprive its owner of anything except informational exclusivity. (Though
it may said that information has monetary value only in proportion to its
There was no question that they were making unauthorized use of data
channels. The night I met them, they left our restaurant table and
disappeared into the phone booth for a long time. I didn't see them
marshalling quarters before they went.
And, as I became less their adversary and more their scoutmaster, I began
to get "conference calls" in which six or eight of them would crack pay
phones all over New York and simultaneously land on my line in
Wyoming. These deft maneuvers made me think of sky-diving stunts
where large groups convene geometrically in free fall. In this case, the
crisis was largely legal.
Their other favorite risky business is the time-honored adolescent sport of
trespassing. They insist on going where they don't belong. But then teen-age
boys have been proceeding uninvited since the dawn of human puberty. It
seems hard-wired. The only innovation is in the new form of the
forbidden zone the means of getting in it.
In fact, like Kevin Mitnik, I broke into NORAD when I was 17. A friend
and I left a nearby "woodsie" (as rustic adolescent drunks were called in
Colorado) and tried to get inside the Cheyenne Mountain. The chrome-
helmeted Air Force MP's held us for about 2 hours before letting us go.
They weren't much older than us and knew exactly our level of national
security threat. Had we come cloaked in electronic mystery, their alert
status certainly would have been higher.
Whence rises much of the anxiety. Everything is so ill-defined. How can
you guess what lies in their hearts when you can't see their eyes? How can
one be sure that, like Mitnik, they won't cross the line from trespassing
into another adolescent pastime, vandalism? And how can you be sure
they pose no threat when you don't know what a threat might be?
And for the crackers some thrill is derived from the metamorphic
vagueness of the laws themselves. On the Net, their effects are
unpredictable. One never knows when they'll bite.
This is because most of the statutes invoked against the crackers were
designed in a very different world from the one they explore. For example,
can unauthorized electronic access can be regarded as the ethical equivalent
of old-fashioned trespass? Like open range, the property boundaries of
Cyberspace are hard to stake and harder still to defend.
Is transmission through an otherwise unused data channel really theft? Is
the track-less passage of a mind through TRW's mainframe the same as
the passage of a pickup through my Back 40? What is a place if Cyberspace
is everywhere? What are data and what is free speech? How does one
treat property which has no physical form and can be infinitely
reproduced? Is a computer the same as a printing press? Can the history
of my business affairs properly belong to someone else? Can anyone
morally claim to own knowledge itself?
If such questions were hard to answer precisely, there are those who are
ready to try. Based on their experience in the Virtual World, they were
about as qualified to enforce its mores as I am to write the Law of the Sea.
But if they lacked technical sophistication, they brought to this task their
usual conviction. And, of course, badges and guns.
Operation Sun Devil
"Recently, we have witnessed an alarming number of young people who,
for a variety of sociological and psychological reasons, have become
attached to their computers and are exploiting their potential in a
criminal manner. Often, a progression of criminal activity occurs which
involves telecommunications fraud (free long distance phone calls),
unauthorized access to other computers (whether for profit, fascination,
ego, or the intellectual challenge), credit card fraud (cash advances and
unauthorized purchases of goods), and then move on to other destructive
activities like computer viruses." "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
--Excerpts from a statement by
Garry M. Jenkins
Asst. Director, U. S. Secret Service
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and
effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated,
no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, support by oath or
affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the
persons or things to be seized."
United States Constitution
On January 24, 1990, a platoon of Secret Service agents entered the
apartment which Acid Phreak shares with his mother and 12 year-old
sister. The latter was the only person home when they burst through the
door with guns drawn. They managed to hold her at bay for about half an
hour until their quarry happened home.
By then, they were nearly done packing up Acid's worldly goods, including
his computer, his notes (both paper and magnetic), books, and such
dubiously dangerous tools as a telephone answering machine, a ghetto
blaster and his complete collection of audio tapes. One agent asked him to
define the real purpose of the answering machine and was frankly
skeptical when told that it answered the phone. The audio tapes seemed
to contain nothing but music, but who knew what dark data Acid might
have encoded between the notes...
When Acid's mother returned from work, she found her apartment a
scene of apprehended criminality. She asked what, exactly, her son had
done to deserve all this attention and was told that, among other things,
he had caused the AT&T system crash several days earlier. (Previously
AT&T had taken full responsibility.) Thus, the agent explained, her
darling boy was thought to have caused over a billion dollars in damage to
the economy of the United States.
This accusation was never turned into a formal charge. Indeed, no charge
of any sort of was filed against Mr. Phreak then and, although the Secret
Service maintained resolute possession of his hardware, software, and
data, no charge had been charged 4 months later.
Across town, similar scenes were being played out at the homes of Phiber
Optik and another colleague code-named Scorpion. Again, equipment,
notes, disks both hard and soft, and personal effects were confiscated.
Again no charges were filed.
Thus began the visible phase of Operation Sun Devil, a two-year Secret
Service investigation which involved 150 federal agents, numerous local
and state law enforcement agencies. and the combined security resources
of PacBell, AT&T, Bellcore, Bell South MCI, U.S. Sprint, Mid-American,
Southwestern Bell, NYNEX, U.S. West and American Express.
The focus of this impressive institutional array was the Legion of Doom, a
group which never had any formal membership list but was thought by the
members with whom I spoke to number less than 20, nearly all of them in
their teens or early twenties.
I asked Acid why they'd chosen such a threatening name. "You wouldn't
want a fairy kind of thing like Legion of Flower Pickers or something. But
the media ate it up too. Probing the Legion of Doom like it was a gang or
something, when really it was just a bunch of geeks behind terminals."
Sometime in December 1988, a 21 year-old Atlanta-area Legion of
Doomster named The Prophet cracked a Bell South computer and
downloaded a three- page text file which outlined, in bureaucrat-ese of
surpassing opacity, the administrative procedures and responsibilities for
marketing, servicing, upgrading, and billing for Bell South's 911 system.
A dense thicket of acronyms, the document was filled with passages like:
"In accordance with the basic SSC/MAC strategy for provisioning, the
SSC/MAC will be Overall Control Office (OCO) for all Notes to PSAP
circuits (official services) and any other services for this customer.
Training must be scheduled for all SSC/MAC involved personnel during
the pre-service stage of the project."
And other such.
At some risk, I too have a copy of this document. To read the whole thing
straight through without entering coma requires either a machine or a
human who has too much practice thinking like one. Anyone who can
understand it fully and fluidly has altered his consciousness beyond the
ability to ever again read Blake, Whitman, or Tolstoy. It is, quite simply,
the worst writing I have ever tried to read.
Since the document contains little of interest to anyone who is not a
student of advanced organizational sclerosis...that is, no access codes, trade
secrets, or proprietary information...I assume The Prophet only copied this
file as a kind of hunting trophy. He had been to the heart of the forest and
had returned with this coonskin to nail to the barn door.
Furthermore, he was proud of his accomplishment, and since such
trophies are infinitely replicable, he wasn't content to nail it to his door
alone. Among the places he copied it was a UNIX bulletin board (rather
like the WELL) in Lockport, Illinois called Jolnet.
It was downloaded by a 20 year-old hacker and pre-law student
(whom I had met in the Harper's Forum) who called himself Knight
Lightning. Though not a member of the Legion of Doom, Knight
Lightning and a friend, Taran King, also published from St. Louis and his
fraternity house at the University of Missouri a worldwide hacker's
magazine called Phrack. (From phone phreak and hack.)
Phrack was an unusual publication in that it was entirely virtual. The only
time its articles hit paper was when one of its subscribers decided to print
out a hard copy. Otherwise, its editions existed in Cyberspace and took no
When Knight Lightning got hold of the Bell South document, he thought
it would amuse his readers and reproduced it in the next issue of Phrack.
He had little reason to think that he was doing something illegal. There is
nothing in it to indicate that it contains proprietary or even sensitive
information. Indeed, it closely resembles telco reference documents which
have long been publicly available.
However, Rich Andrews, the systems operator who oversaw the operation
of Jolnet, thought there might be something funny about the document
when he first ran across it in his system. To be on the safe side, he
forwarded a copy of it to AT&T officials. He was subsequently contacted by
the authorities, and he cooperated with them fully. He would regret that
On the basis of the forgoing, a Grand Jury in Lockport was persuaded by the
Secret Service in early February to hand down a seven count indictment
against The Prophet and Knight Lightning, charging them, among other
things, with interstate transfer of stolen property worth more than $5,000.
When The Prophet and two of his Georgia colleagues were arrested on
February 7, 1990, the Atlanta papers reported they faced 40 years in prison
and a $2 million fine. Knight Lightning was arrested on February 15.
The property in question was the aforementioned blot on the history of
prose whose full title was A Bell South Standard Practice (BSP) 660-225-104S
Control Office Administration of Enhanced 911 Services for Special Services
Major Account Centers, March, 1988.
And not only was this item worth more than $5,000.00, it was worth,
according to the indictment and Bell South, precisely $79,449.00. And not a
penny less. We will probably never know how this figure was reached or
by whom, though I like to imagine an appraisal team consisting of Franz
Kafka, Joseph Heller, and Thomas Pyncheon...
In addition to charging Knight Lightning with crimes for which he could
go to jail 30 years and be fined $122,000.00, they seized his publication,
Phrack, along with all related equipment, software and data, including his
list of subscribers, many of whom would soon lose their computers and
data for the crime of appearing on it.
I talked to Emmanuel Goldstein, the editor of 2600, another hacker
publication which has been known to publish purloined documents. If
they could shut down Phrack, couldn't they as easily shut down 2600?
He said, "I've got one advantage. I come out on paper and the Constitution
knows how to deal with paper."
In fact, nearly all publications are now electronic at some point in their
creation. In a modern newspaper, stories written at the scene are typed to
screens and then sent by modem to a central computer. This computer
composes the layout in electronic type and the entire product transmitted
electronically to the presses. There, finally, the bytes become ink.
Phrack merely omitted the last step in a long line of virtual events.
However, that omission, and its insignificant circulation, left it vulnerable
to seizure based on content. If the 911 document had been the Pentagon
Papers (another proprietary document) and Phrack the New York Times, a
completion of the analogy would have seen the government stopping
publication of the Times and seizing its every material possession,
from notepads to presses.
Not that anyone in the newspaper business seemed particularly worried
about such implications. They, and the rest of the media who bothered to
report Knight Lightning's arrest were too obsessed by what they portrayed
as actual disruptions of emergency service and with marvelling at the
sociopathy of it. One report expressed relief that no one appeared to have
died as a result of the "intrusions."
[Original Transmission Lost, deals with the Steve Jackson game "Cypberpunk"]
t, based on its author's background, they had reason to believe it was a
"handbook on computer crime." It was therefore inappropriate for
publication, 1st Amendment or no 1st Amendment.
I got a copy of the game from the trunk of The Mentor's car in an Austin
parking lot. Like the Bell South document, it seemed pretty innocuous to
me, if a little inscrutable. Borrowing its flavor from the works of William
Gibson and Austin sci-fi author Bruce Sterling, it is filled with silicon
brain implants, holodecks, and gauss guns.
It is, as the cover copy puts it, "a fusion of the dystopian visions of George
Orwell and Timothy Leary." Actually, without the gizmos, it describes a
future kind of like the present its publisher is experiencing at the hands
of the Secret Service.
An unbelievably Byzantine world resides within its 120 large pages of small
print. (These roll-players must be some kind of idiots savants...) Indeed,
it's a thing of such complexity that I can't swear there's no criminal
information in there, but then I can't swear that Grateful Dead records
don't have satanic messages if played backwards. Anything's possible,
especially inside something as remarkable as Cyberpunk.
The most remarkable thing about Cyberpunk is the fact that it was printed
at all. After much negotiation, Jackson was able to get the Secret Service t
let him have some of his data back. However, they told him that he
would be limited to an hour and a half with only one of his three
computers. Also, according to Jackson, "They insisted that all the copies be
made by a Secret Service agent who was a two-finger typist. So we didn't
get much. "
In the end, Jackson and his staff had to reconstruct most of the game from
neural rather than magnetic memory. They did have a few very old
backups, and they retrieved a some scraps which had been passed around
to game testers. They also had the determination of the enraged.
Despite government efforts to impose censorship by prior restraint,
Cyberpunk is now on the market. Presumably, advertising it as "The book
that was seized by the U.S. Secret Service" will invigorate sales. But Steve
Jackson Games, the heretofore prosperous publisher of more than a
hundred role-playing games, has been forced to lay off more than half of
its employees and may well be mortally wounded.
Any employer who has heard this tale will think hard before he hires a
computer cracker. Which may be, of course, among the effects the Secret
On May 8, 1990, Operation Sun Devil, heretofore an apparently random
and nameless trickle of Secret Service actions, swept down on the Legion
of Doom and its ilk like a bureaucratic tsunami. On that day, the Secret
Service served 27 search warrants in 14 cities from Plano, Texas to New
York, New York.
The law had come to Cyberspace. When the day was over, transit through
the wide open spaces of the Virtual World would be a lot trickier.
In a press release following the sweep, the Secret Service boasted having
shut down numerous computer bulletin boards, confiscated 40 computers,
and seized 23,000 disks. They noted in their statement that "the
conceivable criminal violations of this operation have serious
implications for the health and welfare of all individuals, corporations,
and United States Government agencies relying on computers and
telephones to communicate."
It was unclear from their statement whether "this operation" meant the
Legion of Doom or Operation Sun Devil. There was room to interpret it
Because the deliciously ironic truth is that, aside from the 3 page Bell South
document, the hackers had neither removed nor damaged anyone's data.
Operation Sun Devil, on the other hand, had "serious implications" for a
number of folks who relied on "computers and telephones to
communicate." They lost the equivalent of about 5.4 million pages of
information. Not to mention a few computers and telephones.
And the welfare of the individuals behind those figures was surely in
jeopardy. Like the story of the single mother and computer consultant in
Baltimore whose sole means of supporting herself and her 18 year old son
was stripped away early one morning. Secret Service agents broke down
her door with sledge hammers, entered with guns drawn, and seized all
her computer equipment. Apparently her son had also been using it...
Or the father in New York who opened the door at 6:00 AM and found a
shotgun at his nose. A dozen agents entered. While one of the kept the
man's wife in a choke-hold, the rest made ready to shoot and entered the
bedroom of their sleeping 14 year old. Before leaving, the confiscated every
piece of electronic equipment in the house, including all the telephones.
It was enough to suggest that the insurance companies should start writing
policies against capricious governmental seizure of circuitry.
In fairness, one can imagine the government's problem. This is all pretty
magical stuff to them. If I were trying to terminate the operations of a
witch coven, I'd probably seize everything in sight. How would I tell the
ordinary household brooms from the getaway vehicles?
But as I heard more and more about the vile injustices being heaped on my
young pals in the Legion of Doom, not to mention the unfortunate folks
nearby, the less I was inclined toward such temperate thoughts as these. I
drifted back into a 60's-style sense of the government, thinking it a thing
monolithic and evil efficiency and adopting an up-against-the-wall
willingness to spit words like "pig" or "fascist" into my descriptions.
In doing so, I endowed the Secret Service with a clarity of intent which no
agency of government will ever possess. Despite almost every experience
I've ever had with federal authority, I keep imagining its competence.
For some reason, it was easier to invest the Keystone Kapers of Operation
Sun Devil with malign purpose rather than confront their absurdity
straight- on. There is, after all, a twisted kind of comfort in political
paranoia. It provides one such a sense of orderliness to think that the
government is neither crazy nor stupid and that its plots, though wicked,
I was about to have an experience which would restore both my natural
sense of unreality and my unwillingness to demean the motives of others.
I was about to see first hand the disorientation of the law in the featureless
vastness of Cyberspace.
In Search of NuPrometheus
"I pity the poor immigrant..."
-- Bob Dylan
Sometime last June, an angry hacker got hold of a chunk of the highly
secret source code which drives the Apple Macintosh. He then distributed
it to a variety of addresses, claiming responsibility for this act of
information terrorism in the name of the Nu Prometheus League.
Apple freaked. NuPrometheus had stolen, if not the Apple crown jewels,
at least a stone from them. Worse, NuPrometheus had then given this
prize away. Repeatedly.
All Apple really has to offer the world is the software which lies encoded i
silicon on the ROM chip of every Macintosh. This set of instructions is the
cyber-DNA which makes a Macintosh a Macintosh.
Worse, much of the magic in this code was put there by people who not
only did not work for Apple any longer, might only do so again if
encouraged with cattle prods. Apple's attitude toward its ROM code is a
little like that of a rich kid toward his inheritance. Not actually knowing
how to create wealth himself, he guards what he has with hysterical
Time passed, and I forgot about the incident. But one recent May morning,
I leaned that others had not. The tireless search for the spectral heart of
NuPrometheus finally reached Pinedale, Wyoming, where I was the object
of a two hour interview by Special Agent Richard Baxter, Jr. of the Federal
Bureau of Investigation.
Poor Agent Baxter didn't know a ROM chip from a Vise-grip when he
arrived, so much of that time was spent trying to educate him on the
nature of the thing which had been stolen. Or whether "stolen" was the
right term for what had happened to it.
You know things have rather jumped the groove when potential suspects
must explain to law enforcers the nature of their alleged perpetrations.
I wouldn't swear Agent Baxter ever got it quite right. After I showed him
some actual source code, gave a demonstration of e-mail in action, and
downloaded a file from the WELL, he took to rubbing his face with both
hands, peering up over his finger tips and saying, "It sure is something,
isn't it" Or, "Whooo-ee."
Or "my eight year old knows more about these things than I do." He didn't
say this with a father's pride so much as an immigrant's fear of a strange
new land into which he will be forcibly moved and in which his own
child is a native. He looked across my keyboard into Cyberspace and didn't
like what he saw.
We could have made it harder for one another, but I think we each sensed
that the other occupied a world which was as bizarre and nonsensical as it
could be. We did our mutual best to suppress immune response at the
You'd have thought his world might have been a little more recognizable
to me. Not so, it turns out. Because in his world, I found several
unfamiliar features, including these:
1. The Hacker's Conference is an underground organization of computer
outlaws with likely connections to, and almost certainly sympathy with,
the NuPrometheus League. (Or as Agent Baxter repeatedly put it, the
"New Prosthesis League.")
2. John Draper, the aforementioned Cap'n Crunch, in addition to being a
known member of the Hacker's Conference, is also CEO and president of
Autodesk, Inc. This is of particular concern to the FBI because Autodesk
has many top-secret contracts with the government to supply Star Wars
graphics imaging and "hyperspace" technology. Worse, Draper is thought
to have Soviet contacts.
He wasn't making this up. He had lengthy documents from the San
Francisco office to prove it. And in which Autodesk's address was certainly
On the other hand, I know John Draper. While, as I say, he may have once
distinguished himself as a cracker during the Pleistocene, he is not now,
never has been, and never will be CEO of Autodesk. He did work there for
awhile last year, but he was let go long before he got in a position to
Nor is Autodesk, in my experience with it, the Star Wars skunk works
which Agent Baxter's documents indicated. One could hang out there a
long time without ever seeing any gold braid.
Their primary product is something called AutoCAD, by far the most
popular computer-aided design software but generally lacking in lethal
potential. They do have a small development program in Cyberspace,
which is what they call Virtual Reality. (This, I assume is the "hyperspace"
to which Agent Baxter's documents referred.)
However, Autodesk had reduced its Cyberspace program to a couple of
programmers. I imagined Randy Walser and Carl Tollander toiling away in
the dark and lonely service of their country. Didn't work. Then I tried to
describe Virtual Reality to Agent Baxter, but that didn't work either. In
fact, he tilted. I took several runs at it, but I could tell I was violating
border agreements. These seemed to include a requirement that neither of
us try to drag the other across into his conceptual zone.
I fared a little better on the Hacker's Conference. Hardly a conspiracy, the
Hacker's Conference is an annual convention originated in 1984 by the
Point Foundation and the editors of Whole Earth Review. Each year it
invites about a hundred of the most gifted and accomplished of digital
creators. Indeed, they are the very people who have conducted the
personal computer revolution. Agent Baxter looked at my list of Hacker's
Conference attendees and read their bios. "These are the people who
actually design this stuff, aren't they?" He was incredulous. Their
corporate addresses didn't fit his model of outlaws at all well.
Why had he come all the way to Pinedale to investigate a crime he didn't
understand which had taken place (sort of) in 5 different places, none of
which was within 500 miles?
Well, it seems Apple has told the FBI that they can expect little cooperation
from Hackers in and around the Silicon Valley, owing to virulent anti-
Apple sentiment there. They claim this is due to the Hacker belief that
software should be free combined with festering resentment of Apple's
commercial success. They advised the FBI to question only those Hackers
who were as far as possible from the twisted heart of the subculture.
They did have their eye on some local people though. These included a
couple of former Apple employees, Grady Ward and Water Horat, Chuck
Farnham (who has made a living out of harassing Apple), Glenn Tenney
(the purported leader of the Hackers), and, of course, the purported CEO of
Other folks Agent Baxter asked me about included Mitch Kapor, who wrote
Lotus 1-2-3 and was known to have received some this mysterious source code
Or whatever. But I had also met Mitch Kapor, both on the WELL and in
person. A less likely computer terrorist would be hard to come by.
Actually, the question of the source code was another area where worlds
but shadow-boxed. Although Agent Baxter didn't know source code from
Tuesday, he did know that Apple Computer had told his agency that what
had been stolen and disseminated was the complete recipe for a Macintosh
computer. The distribution of this secret formula might result in the
creation of millions of Macintoshes not made by Apple. And, of course,
the ruination of Apple Computer.
In my world, NuPrometheus (whoever they, or more likely, he might be)
had distributed a small portion of the code which related specifically to
Color QuickDraw. QuickDraw is Apple's name for the software which
controls the Mac's on-screen graphics. But this was another detail which
Agent Baxter could not capture. For all he knew, you could grow
Macintoshes from floppy disks.
I explained to him that Apple was alleging something like the ability to
assemble an entire human being from the recipe for a foot, but even he
know the analogy was inexact. And trying to get him to accept the idea
that a corporation could go mad with suspicion was quite futile. He had a
far different perception of the emotional reliability of institutions.
When he finally left, we were both dazzled and disturbed. I spent some
time thinking about Lewis Carroll and tried to return to writing about the
legal persecution of the Legion of Doom. But my heart wasn't in it. I
found myself suddenly too much in sympathy with Agent Baxter and his
struggling colleagues from Operation Sun Devil to get back into a proper
sort of pig- bashing mode.
Given what had happened to other innocent bystanders like Steve Jackson,
I gave some thought to getting scared. But this was Kafka in a clown suit.
It wasn't precisely frightening. I also took some comfort in a phrase once
applied to the administration of Frederick the Great: "Despotism tempered
Of course, incompetence is a double-edged banana. While we may know
this new territory better than the authorities, they have us literally out-
gunned. One should pause before making well-armed paranoids feel
foolish, no matter how foolish they seem.
The Fear of White Noise
"Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity."
appearing to me in a dream
I'm a member of that half of the human race which is inclined to divide
the human race into two kinds of people. My dividing line runs between
the people who crave certainty and the people who trust chance.
You can draw this one a number of ways, of course, like Control vs.
Serendipity, Order vs. Chaos, Hard answers vs. Silly questions, or Newton,
Descartes & Aquinas vs. Heisenberg, Mandelbrot & the Dalai Lama. Etc.
Large organizations and their drones huddle on one end of my scale, busily
trying to impose predictable homogeneity on messy circumstance. On the
other end, free-lancers and ne'er-do-wells cavort about, getting by on luck
if they get by at all.
However you cast these poles, it comes down to the difference between
those who see life as a struggle against cosmic peril and human infamy
and those who believe, without any hard evidence, that the universe is
actually on our side. Fear vs. Faith.
I am of the latter group. Along with Gandhi and Rebecca of Sunnybrook
Farm, I believe that other human beings will quite consistently merit my
trust if I'm not doing something which scares them or makes them feel bad
about themselves. In other words, the best defense is a good way to get
In spite of the fact that this system works very reliably for me and my kind
I find we are increasingly in the minority. More and more of our
neighbors live in armed compounds. Alarms blare continuously.
Potentially happy people give their lives over to the corporate state as
though the world were so dangerous outside its veil of collective
immunity that they have no choice.
I have a number of theories as to why this is happening. One has to do
with the opening of Cyberspace. As a result of this development,
humanity is now undergoing the most profound transformation of its
history. Coming into the Virtual World, we inhabit Information. Indeed,
we become Information. Thought is embodied and the Flesh is made
Word. It's weird as hell.
Beginning with the invention of the telegraph and extending through
television into Virtual Reality, we have been, for a over a century,
experiencing a terrifying erosion in our sense of both body and place. As
we begin to realize the enormity of what is happening to us, all but the
most courageous have gotten scared.
And everyone, regardless of his psychic resilience, feels this overwhelming
sense of strangeness. The world, once so certain and tangible and legally
precise, has become an infinite layering of opinions, perceptions, litigation
camera-angles, data, white noise, and, most of all, ambiguities. Those of us
who are of the fearful persuasion do not like ambiguities.
Indeed, if one were a little jumpy to start with, he may now be fairly
humming with nameless dread. Since no one likes his dread to be
nameless, the first order of business is to find it some names.
For a long time here in the United States, Communism provided a kind of
catch-all bogeyman. Marx, Stalin and Mao summoned forth such a specter
that, to many Americans, annihilation of all life was preferable to the
human portion's becoming Communist. But as Big Red wizened and lost
his teeth, we began to cast about for a replacement.
Finding none of sufficient individual horror, we have draped a number of
objects with the old black bunting which once shrouded the Kremlin. Our
current spooks are terrorists, child abductors, AIDS, and the underclass. I
would say drugs, but anyone who thinks that the War on Drugs is not
actually the War on the Underclass hasn't been paying close enough
There are a couple of problems with these Four Horsemen. For one thing,
they aren't actually very dangerous. For example, only 7 Americans died
in worldwide terrorist attacks in 1987. Fewer than 10 (out of about 70
million) children are abducted by strangers in the U.S. each year. Your
chances of getting AIDS if you are neither gay nor a hemophiliac nor a
junkie are considerably less than your chances of getting killed by
lightning while golfing. The underclass is dangerous, of course, but only,
with very few exceptions, if you are a member of it.
The other problem with these perils is that they are all physical. If we are
entering into a world in which no one has a body, physical threats begin to
lose their sting.
And now I come to the point of this screed: The perfect bogeyman for
Modern Times is the Cyberpunk! He is so smart he makes you feel even
more stupid than you usually do. He knows this complex country in
which you're perpetually lost. He understands the value of things you
can't conceptualize long enough to cash in on. He is the one-eyed man in
the Country of the Blind.
In a world where you and your wealth consist of nothing but beeps and
boops of micro-voltage, he can steal all your assets in nanoseconds and
then make you disappear.
He can even reach back out of his haunted mists and kill you physically.
Among the justifications for Operation Sun Devil was this chilling tidbit:
"Hackers had the ability to access and review the files of hospital patients
Furthermore, they could have added, deleted, or altered vital patient
information, possibly causing life-threatening situations." [Emphasis
Perhaps the most frightening thing about the Cyberpunk is the danger he
presents to The Institution, whether corporate or governmental. If you are
frightened you have almost certainly taken shelter by now in one of these
collective organisms, so the very last thing you want is something which
can endanger your heretofore unassailable hive.
And make no mistake, crackers will become to bureaucratic bodies what
viruses presently are to human bodies. Thus, Operation Sun Devil can be
seen as the first of many waves of organizational immune response to this
new antigen. Agent Baxter was a T-cell. Fortunately, he didn't know that
himself and I was very careful not to show him my own antigenic tendencies.
I think that herein lies the way out of what might otherwise become an
Armageddon between the control freaks and the neo-hip. Those who are
comfortable with these disorienting changes must do everything in our
power to convey that comfort to others. In other words, we must share our
sense of hope and opportunity with those who feel that in Cyberspace they
will be obsolete eunuchs for sure.
It's a tall order. But, my silicon brothers, our self-interest is strong. If
come on as witches, they will burn us. If we volunteer to guide them
gently into its new lands, the Virtual World might be a more amiable
place for all of us than this one has been.
Of course, we may also have to fight.
Defining the conceptual and legal map of Cyberspace before the
ambiguophobes do it for us (with punitive over-precision) is going to
require some effort. We can't expect the Constitution to take care of itself
Indeed, the precedent for mitigating the Constitutional protection of a new
medium has already been established. Consider what happened to radio in
the early part of this century.
Under the pretext of allocating limited bandwidth, the government
established an early right of censorship over broadcast content which still
seems directly unconstitutional to me. Except that it stuck. And now,
owing to a large body of case law, looks to go on sticking.
New media, like any chaotic system, are highly sensitive to initial
conditions. Today's heuristical answers of the moment become
tomorrow's permanent institutions of both law and expectation. Thus,
they bear examination with that destiny in mind.
Earlier in this article, I asked a number of tough questions relating to the
nature of property, privacy, and speech in the digital domain. Questions
like: "What are data and what is free speech?" or "How does one treat
property which has no physical form and can be infinitely reproduced?"
or "Is a computer the same as a printing press." The events of Operation
Sun Devil were nothing less than an effort to provide answers to these
questions. Answers which would greatly enhance governmental ability
to silence the future's opinionated nerds.
In over-reaching as extravagantly as they did, the Secret Service may
actually have done a service for those of us who love liberty. They have
provided us with a devil. And devils, among their other galvanizing
virtues, are just great for clarifying the issues and putting iron in your
spine. In the presence of a devil, it's always easier to figure out
where you stand.
While I previously had felt no stake in the obscure conundra of free
telecommunications, thanks to Operation Sun Devil, suddenly able
to plot a trajectory from the current plight of the Legion of Doom to an
eventual constraint on opinions much dearer to me. I remembered
Martin Neimoeller, who said:
"In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up
because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't
speak up because I wasn't a Jew. They came for the trade unionists, and I
didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the
Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they
came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up."
I decided it was time for me to speak up.
The evening of my visit from Agent Baxter, I wrote an account of it which I
placed on the WELL. Several days later, Mitch Kapor literally dropped by
for a chat.
Also a WELL denizen, he had read about Agent Baxter and had begun to
meditate on the inappropriateness of leaving the our civil liberties to be
defined by the technologically benighted. A man who places great emphasis
on face-to-face contact, he wanted to discuss this issue with me in person.
He had been flying his Canadair bizjet to a meeting in California when he
realized his route took him directly over Pinedale.
We talked for a couple of hours in my office while a spring snowstorm
swirled outside. When I recounted for him what I had learned about
Operation Sun Devil, he decided it was time for him to speak up too.
He called a few days later with the phone number of a civil libertarian name
Harvey Silverglate, who, as evidence of his conviction that everyone
deserves due process, is currently defending Leona Helmsley. Mitch
asked me to tell Harvey what I knew, with the inference that he would
help support the costs which are liable to arise whenever you tell a lawyer
I found Harvey in New York at the offices of that city's most distinguished
constitutional law firm, Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky, and
Lieberman. These are the folks who made it possible for the New York
Times to print the Pentagon Papers. (Not to dwell on the unwilling
notoriety which partner Leonard Boudin achieved back in 1970 when his
Weathergirl daughter blew up the family home...)
In the conference call which followed, I could almost hear the skeletal click
as their jaws dropped. The next day, Eric Lieberman and Terry Gross of
Rabinowitz, Boudin met with Acid Phreak, Phiber Optik, and Scorpion.
The maddening trouble with writing this account is that Whole Earth
Review, unlike, say, Phrack, doesn't publish instantaneously. Events are
boiling up at such a frothy pace that anything I say about current
occurrences surely will not obtain by the time you read this. The road
from here is certain to fork many times. The printed version of this will
seem downright quaint before it's dry.
But as of today (in early June of 1990), Mitch and I are legally constituting
the Computer Liberty Foundation, a two (or possibly three) man
organization which will raise and disburse funds for education, lobbying,
and litigation in the areas relating to digital speech and the extension of
the Constitution into Cyberspace.
Already, on the strength of preliminary stories about our efforts in the
Washington Post and the New York Times, Mitch has received an offer
from Steve Wozniak to match whatever funds he dedicates to this effort.
(As well as a fair amount of abuse from the more institutionalized
precincts of the computer industry.)
The Computer Liberty Foundation will fund, conduct, and support legal
efforts to demonstrate that the Secret Service has exercised prior restraint
on publications, limited free speech, conducted improper seizure of
equipment and data, used undue force, and generally conducted itself in a
fashion which is arbitrary, oppressive, and unconstitutional.
In addition, we will work with the Computer Professionals for Social
Responsibility and other organizations to convey to both the public and the
policy-makers metaphors which will illuminate the more general stake in
Not everyone will agree. Crackers are, after all, generally beyond public
sympathy. Actions on their behalf are not going to be popular no matter
who else might benefit from them in the long run.
Nevertheless, in the litigations and political debates which are certain to
follow, we will endeavor to assure that their electronic speech is protected
as certainly as any opinions which are printed or, for that matter,
screamed. We will make an effort to clarify issues surrounding the
distribution of intellectual property. And we will help to create for
America a future which is as blessed by the Bill of Rights as its past has
John Perry Barlow [email protected]
Friday, June 8, 1990
- - - - -
189:9) Gordon Cook 26-JUL-90 22:28
Ok there it is. Lot of stuff, but damned well written and I think the most i
important piece that I have seen in a LONG Time!
John Barlow and Mitch Kapor....**BLESS YOU BOTH***!
If either of you are round these parts, please keep us informed on what's up!
Or any one else too.
What *DO* the rest of you Think?
- - - - -
189:10) Bill Robinson 27-JUL-90 2:21
Incredibly important, Gordon. The basic question remains, Why The Secret
Service?? What was their jurisdiction?
Never mind that they may have violated every search and seizure rule in
the book. Or that some of them didn't know enough about the subject to
recognize a telephone answering machine.
I think it's wonderful that the industry giants are forming watchdog
organizations. You know what is said about the price of liberty.
- - - - -
189:11) Earl Crabb 27-JUL-90 11:54
Date: 27/JUL/90 0:18
They have formed the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Mitch and Barlow,
and have raised a bunch of money already. There's lots of news of this
on the WELL.