From The Hacker Crackdown, by Bruce Sterling

See: The Hacker Crackdown: Preface to the electronic release for copying info


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 America.

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 "Operation Sundevil."

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 values. 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 itself. 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 straight people. 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 computer systems. 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.")

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