From The Hacker Crackdown, by Bruce Sterling

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

We must now turn our attention to Steve Jackson Games itself, and explain what SJG was, what it really did, and how it had managed to attract this particularly odd and virulent kind of trouble. The reader may recall that this is not the first but the second time that the company has appeared in this narrative; a Steve Jackson game called GURPS was a favorite pastime of Atlanta hacker Urvile, and Urvile's science-fictional gaming notes had been mixed up promiscuously with notes about his actual computer intrusions.

First, Steve Jackson Games, Inc., was *not* a publisher of "computer games." SJG published "simulation games," parlor games that were played on paper, with pencils, and dice, and printed guidebooks full of rules and statistics tables. There were no computers involved in the games themselves. When you bought a Steve Jackson Game, you did not receive any software disks. What you got was a plastic bag with some cardboard game tokens, maybe a few maps or a deck of cards. Most of their products were books.

However, computers *were* deeply involved in the Steve Jackson Games business. Like almost all modern publishers, Steve Jackson and his fifteen employees used computers to write text, to keep accounts, and to run the business generally. They also used a computer to run their official bulletin board system for Steve Jackson Games, a board called Illuminati. On Illuminati, simulation gamers who happened to own computers and modems could associate, trade mail, debate the theory and practice of gaming, and keep up with the company's news and its product announcements.

Illuminati was a modestly popular board, run on a small computer with limited storage, only one phone-line, and no ties to large-scale computer networks. It did, however, have hundreds of users, many of them dedicated gamers willing to call from out-of-state.

Illuminati was *not* an "underground" board. It did not feature hints on computer intrusion, or "anarchy files," or illicitly posted credit card numbers, or long-distance access codes. Some of Illuminati's users, however, were members of the Legion of Doom. And so was one of Steve Jackson's senior employees -- the Mentor. The Mentor wrote for *Phrack,* and also ran an underground board, Phoenix Project -- but the Mentor was not a computer professional. The Mentor was the managing editor of Steve Jackson Games and a professional game designer by trade. These LoD members did not use Illuminati to help their *hacking* activities. They used it to help their *game-playing* activities -- and they were even more dedicated to simulation gaming than they were to hacking.

"Illuminati" got its name from a card-game that Steve Jackson himself, the company's founder and sole owner, had invented. This multi-player card-game was one of Mr Jackson's best-known, most successful, most technically innovative products. "Illuminati" was a game of paranoiac conspiracy in which various antisocial cults warred covertly to dominate the world. "Illuminati" was hilarious, and great fun to play, involving flying saucers, the CIA, the KGB, the phone companies, the Ku Klux Klan, the South American Nazis, the cocaine cartels, the Boy Scouts, and dozens of other splinter groups from the twisted depths of Mr. Jackson's professionally fervid imagination. For the uninitiated, any public discussion of the "Illuminati" card-game sounded, by turns, utterly menacing or completely insane.

And then there was SJG's "Car Wars," in which souped-up armored hot-rods with rocket-launchers and heavy machine-guns did battle on the American highways of the future. The lively Car Wars discussion on the Illuminati board featured many meticulous, painstaking discussions of the effects of grenades, land-mines, flamethrowers and napalm. It sounded like hacker anarchy files run amuck.

Mr Jackson and his co-workers earned their daily bread by supplying people with make-believe adventures and weird ideas. The more far-out, the better.

Simulation gaming is an unusual pastime, but gamers have not generally had to beg the permission of the Secret Service to exist. Wargames and role-playing adventures are an old and honored pastime, much favored by professional military strategists. Once little-known, these games are now played by hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts throughout North America, Europe and Japan. Gaming-books, once restricted to hobby outlets, now commonly appear in chain-stores like B. Dalton's and Waldenbooks, and sell vigorously.

Steve Jackson Games, Inc., of Austin, Texas, was a games company of the middle rank. In 1989, SJG grossed about a million dollars. Jackson himself had a good reputation in his industry as a talented and innovative designer of rather unconventional games, but his company was something less than a titan of the field -- certainly not like the multimillion-dollar TSR Inc., or Britain's gigantic "Games Workshop."

SJG's Austin headquarters was a modest two-story brick office-suite, cluttered with phones, photocopiers, fax machines and computers. It bustled with semi-organized activity and was littered with glossy promotional brochures and dog-eared science-fiction novels. Attached to the offices was a large tin-roofed warehouse piled twenty feet high with cardboard boxes of games and books. Despite the weird imaginings that went on within it, the SJG headquarters was quite a quotidian, everyday sort of place. It looked like what it was: a publishers' digs.

Both "Car Wars" and "Illuminati" were well-known, popular games. But the mainstay of the Jackson organization was their Generic Universal Role-Playing System, "G.U.R.P.S." The GURPS system was considered solid and well-designed, an asset for players. But perhaps the most popular feature of the GURPS system was that it allowed gaming-masters to design scenarios that closely resembled well-known books, movies, and other works of fantasy. Jackson had licensed and adapted works from many science fiction and fantasy authors. There was *GURPS Conan,* *GURPS Riverworld,* *GURPS Horseclans,* *GURPS Witch World,* names eminently familiar to science-fiction readers. And there was *GURPS Special Ops,* from the world of espionage fantasy and unconventional warfare.

And then there was *GURPS Cyberpunk.*

"Cyberpunk" was a term given to certain science fiction writers who had entered the genre in the 1980s. "Cyberpunk," as the label implies, had two general distinguishing features. First, its writers had a compelling interest in information technology, an interest closely akin to science fiction's earlier fascination with space travel. And second, these writers were "punks," with all the distinguishing features that that implies: Bohemian artiness, youth run wild, an air of deliberate rebellion, funny clothes and hair, odd politics, a fondness for abrasive rock and roll; in a word, trouble.

The "cyberpunk" SF writers were a small group of mostly college-educated white middle-class litterateurs, scattered through the US and Canada. Only one, Rudy Rucker, a professor of computer science in Silicon Valley, could rank with even the humblest computer hacker. But, except for Professor Rucker, the "cyberpunk" authors were not programmers or hardware experts; they considered themselves artists (as, indeed, did Professor Rucker). However, these writers all owned computers, and took an intense and public interest in the social ramifications of the information industry.

The cyberpunks had a strong following among the global generation that had grown up in a world of computers, multinational networks, and cable television. Their outlook was considered somewhat morbid, cynical, and dark, but then again, so was the outlook of their generational peers. As that generation matured and increased in strength and influence, so did the cyberpunks. As science-fiction writers went, they were doing fairly well for themselves. By the late 1980s, their work had attracted attention from gaming companies, including Steve Jackson Games, which was planning a cyberpunk simulation for the flourishing GURPS gaming-system.

The time seemed ripe for such a product, which had already been proven in the marketplace. The first games-company out of the gate, with a product boldly called "Cyberpunk" in defiance of possible infringement-of-copyright suits, had been an upstart group called R. Talsorian. Talsorian's Cyberpunk was a fairly decent game, but the mechanics of the simulation system left a lot to be desired. Commercially, however, the game did very well.

The next cyberpunk game had been the even more successful *Shadowrun* by FASA Corporation. The mechanics of this game were fine, but the scenario was rendered moronic by sappy fantasy elements like elves, trolls, wizards, and dragons -- all highly ideologically-incorrect, according to the hard-edged, high-tech standards of cyberpunk science fiction.

Other game designers were champing at the bit. Prominent among them was the Mentor, a gentleman who, like most of his friends in the Legion of Doom, was quite the cyberpunk devotee. Mentor reasoned that the time had come for a *real* cyberpunk gaming-book -- one that the princes of computer-mischief in the Legion of Doom could play without laughing themselves sick. This book, *GURPS Cyberpunk,* would reek of culturally on-line authenticity.

Mentor was particularly well-qualified for this task. Naturally, he knew far more about computer-intrusion and digital skullduggery than any previously published cyberpunk author. Not only that, but he was good at his work. A vivid imagination, combined with an instinctive feeling for the working of systems and, especially, the loopholes within them, are excellent qualities for a professional game designer.

By March 1st, *GURPS Cyberpunk* was almost complete, ready to print and ship. Steve Jackson expected vigorous sales for this item, which, he hoped, would keep the company financially afloat for several months. *GURPS Cyberpunk,* like the other GURPS "modules," was not a "game" like a Monopoly set, but a *book:* a bound paperback book the size of a glossy magazine, with a slick color cover, and pages full of text, illustrations, tables and footnotes. It was advertised as a game, and was used as an aid to game-playing, but it was a book, with an ISBN number, published in Texas, copyrighted, and sold in bookstores.

And now, that book, stored on a computer, had gone out the door in the custody of the Secret Service.

The day after the raid, Steve Jackson visited the local Secret Service headquarters with a lawyer in tow. There he confronted Tim Foley (still in Austin at that time) and demanded his book back. But there was trouble. *GURPS Cyberpunk,* alleged a Secret Service agent to astonished businessman Steve Jackson, was "a manual for computer crime."

"It's science fiction," Jackson said.

"No, this is real." This statement was repeated several times, by several agents. Jackson's ominously accurate game had passed from pure, obscure, small-scale fantasy into the impure, highly publicized, large-scale fantasy of the Hacker Crackdown.

No mention was made of the real reason for the search. According to their search warrant, the raiders had expected to find the E911 Document stored on Jackson's bulletin board system. But that warrant was sealed; a procedure that most law enforcement agencies will use only when lives are demonstrably in danger. The raiders' true motives were not discovered until the Jackson search-warrant was unsealed by his lawyers, many months later. The Secret Service, and the Chicago Computer Fraud and Abuse Task Force, said absolutely nothing to Steve Jackson about any threat to the police 911 System. They said nothing about the Atlanta Three, nothing about *Phrack* or Knight Lightning, nothing about Terminus.

Jackson was left to believe that his computers had been seized because he intended to publish a science fiction book that law enforcement considered too dangerous to see print.

This misconception was repeated again and again, for months, to an ever-widening public audience. It was not the truth of the case; but as months passed, and this misconception was publicly printed again and again, it became one of the few publicly known "facts" about the mysterious Hacker Crackdown. The Secret Service had seized a computer to stop the publication of a cyberpunk science fiction book.

The second section of this book, "The Digital Underground," is almost finished now. We have become acquainted with all the major figures of this case who actually belong to the underground milieu of computer intrusion. We have some idea of their history, their motives, their general modus operandi. We now know, I hope, who they are, where they came from, and more or less what they want. In the next section of this book, "Law and Order," we will leave this milieu and directly enter the world of America's computer-crime police.

At this point, however, I have another figure to introduce: myself.

My name is Bruce Sterling. I live in Austin, Texas, where I am a science fiction writer by trade: specifically, a *cyberpunk* science fiction writer.

Like my "cyberpunk" colleagues in the U.S. and Canada, I've never been entirely happy with this literary label -- especially after it became a synonym for computer criminal. But I did once edit a book of stories by my colleagues, called *MIRRORSHADES: the Cyberpunk Anthology,* and I've long been a writer of literary-critical cyberpunk manifestos. I am not a "hacker" of any description, though I do have readers in the digital underground.

When the Steve Jackson Games seizure occurred, I naturally took an intense interest. If "cyberpunk" books were being banned by federal police in my own home town, I reasonably wondered whether I myself might be next. Would my computer be seized by the Secret Service? At the time, I was in possession of an aging Apple IIe without so much as a hard disk. If I were to be raided as an author of computer-crime manuals, the loss of my feeble word-processor would likely provoke more snickers than sympathy.

I'd known Steve Jackson for many years. We knew one another as colleagues, for we frequented the same local science-fiction conventions. I'd played Jackson games, and recognized his cleverness; but he certainly had never struck me as a potential mastermind of computer crime.

I also knew a little about computer bulletin-board systems. In the mid-1980s I had taken an active role in an Austin board called "SMOF-BBS," one of the first boards dedicated to science fiction. I had a modem, and on occasion I'd logged on to Illuminati, which always looked entertainly wacky, but certainly harmless enough.

At the time of the Jackson seizure, I had no experience whatsoever with underground boards. But I knew that no one on Illuminati talked about breaking into systems illegally, or about robbing phone companies. Illuminati didn't even offer pirated computer games. Steve Jackson, like many creative artists, was markedly touchy about theft of intellectual property.

It seemed to me that Jackson was either seriously suspected of some crime -- in which case, he would be charged soon, and would have his day in court -- or else he was innocent, in which case the Secret Service would quickly return his equipment, and everyone would have a good laugh. I rather expected the good laugh. The situation was not without its comic side. The raid, known as the "Cyberpunk Bust" in the science fiction community, was winning a great deal of free national publicity both for Jackson himself and the "cyberpunk" science fiction writers generally.

Besides, science fiction people are used to being misinterpreted. Science fiction is a colorful, disreputable, slipshod occupation, full of unlikely oddballs, which, of course, is why we like it. Weirdness can be an occupational hazard in our field. People who wear Halloween costumes are sometimes mistaken for monsters.

Once upon a time -- back in 1939, in New York City -- science fiction and the U.S. Secret Service collided in a comic case of mistaken identity. This weird incident involved a literary group quite famous in science fiction, known as "the Futurians," whose membership included such future genre greats as Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, and Damon Knight. The Futurians were every bit as offbeat and wacky as any of their spiritual descendants, including the cyberpunks, and were given to communal living, spontaneous group renditions of light opera, and midnight fencing exhibitions on the lawn. The Futurians didn't have bulletin board systems, but they did have the technological equivalent in 1939 -- mimeographs and a private printing press. These were in steady use, producing a stream of science-fiction fan magazines, literary manifestos, and weird articles, which were picked up in ink-sticky bundles by a succession of strange, gangly, spotty young men in fedoras and overcoats.

The neighbors grew alarmed at the antics of the Futurians and reported them to the Secret Service as suspected counterfeiters. In the winter of 1939, a squad of USSS agents with drawn guns burst into "Futurian House," prepared to confiscate the forged currency and illicit printing presses. There they discovered a slumbering science fiction fan named George Hahn, a guest of the Futurian commune who had just arrived in New York. George Hahn managed to explain himself and his group, and the Secret Service agents left the Futurians in peace henceforth. (Alas, Hahn died in 1991, just before I had discovered this astonishing historical parallel, and just before I could interview him for this book.)

But the Jackson case did not come to a swift and comic end. No quick answers came his way, or mine; no swift reassurances that all was right in the digital world, that matters were well in hand after all. Quite the opposite. In my alternate role as a sometime pop-science journalist, I interviewed Jackson and his staff for an article in a British magazine. The strange details of the raid left me more concerned than ever. Without its computers, the company had been financially and operationally crippled. Half the SJG workforce, a group of entirely innocent people, had been sorrowfully fired, deprived of their livelihoods by the seizure. It began to dawn on me that authors -- American writers -- might well have their computers seized, under sealed warrants, without any criminal charge; and that, as Steve Jackson had discovered, there was no immediate recourse for this. This was no joke; this wasn't science fiction; this was real.

I determined to put science fiction aside until I had discovered what had happened and where this trouble had come from. It was time to enter the purportedly real world of electronic free expression and computer crime. Hence, this book. Hence, the world of the telcos; and the world of the digital underground; and next, the world of the police.


Bruce Sterling
bruces@well.sf.ca.us

Literary Freeware: Not for Commercial Use

THE HACKER CRACKDOWN: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier

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