From The Hacker Crackdown
, by Bruce Sterling
See: The Hacker Crackdown: Preface to the electronic release
for copying info
There are interesting parallels between the Service's nineteenth-century entry into counterfeiting, and America's twentieth-century entry into computer-crime.
In 1865, America's paper currency was a terrible muddle. Security was drastically bad. Currency was printed on the spot by local banks in literally hundreds of different designs. No one really knew what the heck a dollar bill was supposed to look like. Bogus bills passed easily. If some joker told you that a one-dollar bill from the Railroad Bank of Lowell, Massachusetts had a woman leaning on a shield, with a locomotive, a cornucopia, a compass, various agricultural implements, a railroad bridge, and some factories, then you pretty much had to take his word for it. (And in fact he was telling the truth!)
*Sixteen hundred* local American banks designed and printed their own paper currency, and there were no general standards for security. Like a badly guarded node in a computer network, badly designed bills were easy to fake, and posed a security hazard for the entire monetary system.
No one knew the exact extent of the threat to the currency. There were panicked estimates that as much as a third of the entire national currency was faked. Counterfeiters -- known as "boodlers" in the underground slang of the time -- were mostly technically skilled printers who had gone to the bad. Many had once worked printing legitimate currency. Boodlers operated in rings and gangs. Technical experts engraved the bogus plates -- commonly in basements in New York City. Smooth confidence men passed large wads of high-quality, high-denomination fakes, including the really sophisticated stuff -- government bonds, stock certificates, and railway shares. Cheaper, botched fakes were sold or sharewared to low-level gangs of boodler wannabes. (The really cheesy lowlife boodlers merely upgraded real bills by altering face values, changing ones to fives, tens to hundreds, and so on.)
The techniques of boodling were little-known and regarded with a certain awe by the mid-nineteenth-century public. The ability to manipulate the system for rip-off seemed diabolically clever. As the skill and daring of the boodlers increased, the situation became intolerable. The federal government stepped in, and began offering its own federal currency, which was printed in fancy green ink, but only on the back -- the original "greenbacks." And at first, the improved security of the well-designed, well-printed federal greenbacks seemed to solve the problem; but then the counterfeiters caught on. Within a few years things were worse than ever: a *centralized* system where *all* security was bad!
The local police were helpless. The Government tried offering blood money to potential informants, but this met with little success. Banks, plagued by boodling, gave up hope of police help and hired private security men instead. Merchants and bankers queued up by the thousands to buy privately-printed manuals on currency security, slim little books like Laban Heath's *Infallible Government Counterfeit Detector.* The back of the book offered Laban Heath's patent microscope for five bucks.
Then the Secret Service entered the picture. The first agents were a rough and ready crew. Their chief was one William P. Wood, a former guerilla in the Mexican War who'd won a reputation busting contractor fraudsters for the War Department during the Civil War. Wood, who was also Keeper of the Capital Prison, had a sideline as a counterfeiting expert, bagging boodlers for the federal bounty money.
Wood was named Chief of the new Secret Service in July 1865. There were only ten Secret Service agents in all: Wood himself, a handful who'd worked for him in the War Department, and a few former private investigators -- counterfeiting experts -- whom Wood had won over to public service. (The Secret Service of 1865 was much the size of the Chicago Computer Fraud Task Force or the Arizona Racketeering Unit of 1990.) These ten "Operatives" had an additional twenty or so "Assistant Operatives" and "Informants." Besides salary and per diem, each Secret Service employee received a whopping twenty-five dollars for each boodler he captured.
Wood himself publicly estimated that at least *half* of America's currency was counterfeit, a perhaps pardonable perception. Within a year the Secret Service had arrested over 200 counterfeiters. They busted about two hundred boodlers a year for four years straight.
Wood attributed his success to travelling fast and light, hitting the bad-guys hard, and avoiding bureaucratic baggage. "Because my raids were made without military escort and I did not ask the assistance of state officers, I surprised the professional counterfeiter."
Wood's social message to the once-impudent boodlers bore an eerie ring of Sundevil: "It was also my purpose to convince such characters that it would no longer be healthy for them to ply their vocation without being handled roughly, a fact they soon discovered."
William P. Wood, the Secret Service's guerilla pioneer, did not end well. He succumbed to the lure of aiming for the really big score. The notorious Brockway Gang of New York City, headed by William E. Brockway, the "King of the Counterfeiters," had forged a number of government bonds. They'd passed these brilliant fakes on the prestigious Wall Street investment firm of Jay Cooke and Company. The Cooke firm were frantic and offered a huge reward for the forgers' plates.
Laboring diligently, Wood confiscated the plates (though not Mr. Brockway) and claimed the reward. But the Cooke company treacherously reneged. Wood got involved in a down-and-dirty lawsuit with the Cooke capitalists. Wood's boss, Secretary of the Treasury McCulloch, felt that Wood's demands for money and glory were unseemly, and even when the reward money finally came through, McCulloch refused to pay Wood anything. Wood found himself mired in a seemingly endless round of federal suits and Congressional lobbying.
Wood never got his money. And he lost his job to boot. He resigned in 1869.
Wood's agents suffered, too. On May 12, 1869, the second Chief of the Secret Service took over, and almost immediately fired most of Wood's pioneer Secret Service agents: Operatives, Assistants and Informants alike. The practice of receiving $25 per crook was abolished. And the Secret Service began the long, uncertain process of thorough professionalization.
Wood ended badly. He must have felt stabbed in the back. In fact his entire organization was mangled.
On the other hand, William P. Wood *was* the first head of the Secret Service. William Wood was the pioneer. People still honor his name. Who remembers the name of the *second* head of the Secret Service?
As for William Brockway (also known as "Colonel Spencer"), he was finally arrested by the Secret Service in 1880. He did five years in prison, got out, and was still boodling at the age of seventy-four.