From The Hacker Crackdown
, by Bruce Sterling
See: The Hacker Crackdown: Preface to the electronic release
for copying info
From the beginning -- even before the crackdown had a name -- secrecy was a big problem. There were many good reasons for secrecy in the hacker crackdown. Hackers and code-thieves were wily prey, slinking back to their bedrooms and basements and destroying vital incriminating evidence at the first hint of trouble. Furthermore, the crimes themselves were heavily technical and difficult to describe, even to police -- much less to the general public. When such crimes *had* been described intelligibly to the public, in the past, that very publicity had tended to *increase* the crimes enormously. Telco officials, while painfully aware of the vulnerabilities of their systems, were anxious not to publicize those weaknesses. Experience showed them that those weaknesses, once discovered, would be pitilessly exploited by tens of thousands of people -- not only by professional grifters and by underground hackers and phone phreaks, but by many otherwise more-or-less honest everyday folks, who regarded stealing service from the faceless, soulless "Phone Company" as a kind of harmless indoor sport. When it came to protecting their interests, telcos had long since given up on general public sympathy for "the Voice with a Smile." Nowadays the telco's "Voice" was very likely to be a computer's; and the American public showed much less of the proper respect and gratitude due the fine public service bequeathed them by Dr. Bell and Mr. Vail. The more efficient, high-tech, computerized, and impersonal the telcos became, it seemed, the more they were met by sullen public resentment and amoral greed.
Telco officials wanted to punish the phone-phreak underground, in as public and exemplary a manner as possible. They wanted to make dire examples of the worst offenders, to seize the ringleaders and intimidate the small fry, to discourage and frighten the wacky hobbyists, and send the professional grifters to jail. To do all this, publicity was vital. Yet operational secrecy was even more so. If word got out that a nationwide crackdown was coming, the hackers might simply vanish; destroy the evidence, hide their computers, go to earth, and wait for the campaign to blow over. Even the young hackers were crafty and suspicious, and as for the professional grifters, they tended to split for the nearest state-line at the first sign of trouble. For the crackdown to work well, they would all have to be caught red-handed, swept upon suddenly, out of the blue, from every corner of the compass.
And there was another strong motive for secrecy. In the worst-case scenario, a blown campaign might leave the telcos open to a devastating hacker counter-attack. If there were indeed hackers loose in America who had caused the January 15 Crash -- if there were truly gifted hackers, loose in the nation's long-distance switching systems, and enraged or frightened by the crackdown -- then they might react unpredictably to an attempt to collar them. Even if caught, they might have talented and vengeful friends still running around loose. Conceivably, it could turn ugly. Very ugly. In fact, it was hard to imagine just how ugly things might turn, given that possibility.
Counter-attack from hackers was a genuine concern for the telcos. In point of fact, they would never suffer any such counter-attack. But in months to come, they would be at some pains to publicize this notion and to utter grim warnings about it.
Still, that risk seemed well worth running. Better to run the risk of vengeful attacks, than to live at the mercy of potential crashers. Any cop would tell you that a protection racket had no real future.
And publicity was such a useful thing. Corporate security officers, including telco security, generally work under conditions of great discretion. And corporate security officials do not make money for their companies. Their job is to *prevent the loss* of money, which is much less glamorous than actually winning profits. If you are a corporate security official, and you do your job brilliantly, then nothing bad happens to your company at all. Because of this, you appear completely superfluous. This is one of the many unattractive aspects of security work. It's rare that these folks have the chance to draw some healthy attention to their own efforts.
Publicity also served the interest of their friends in law enforcement. Public officials, including law enforcement officials, thrive by attracting favorable public interest. A brilliant prosecution in a matter of vital public interest can make the career of a prosecuting attorney. And for a police officer, good publicity opens the purses of the legislature; it may bring a citation, or a promotion, or at least a rise in status and the respect of one's peers.
But to have both publicity and secrecy is to have one's cake and eat it too. In months to come, as we will show, this impossible act was to cause great pain to the agents of the crackdown. But early on, it seemed possible -- maybe even likely -- that the crackdown could successfully combine the best of both worlds. The *arrest* of hackers would be heavily publicized. The actual *deeds* of the hackers, which were technically hard to explain and also a security risk, would be left decently obscured. The *threat* hackers posed would be heavily trumpeted; the likelihood of their actually committing such fearsome crimes would be left to the public's imagination. The spread of the computer underground, and its growing technical sophistication, would be heavily promoted; the actual hackers themselves, mostly bespectacled middle-class white suburban teenagers, would be denied any personal publicity. It does not seem to have occurred to any telco official that the hackers accused would demand a day in court; that journalists would smile upon the hackers as "good copy;" that wealthy high-tech entrepreneurs would offer moral and financial support to crackdown victims; that constitutional lawyers would show up with briefcases, frowning mightily. This possibility does not seem to have ever entered the game-plan.
And even if it had, it probably would not have slowed the ferocious pursuit of a stolen phone-company document, mellifluously known as "Control Office Administration of Enhanced 911 Services for Special Services and Major Account Centers."
In the chapters to follow, we will explore the worlds of police and the computer underground, and the large shadowy area where they overlap. But first, we must explore the battleground. Before we leave the world of the telcos, we must understand what a switching system actually is and how your telephone actually works.