From The Hacker Crackdown
, by Bruce Sterling
See: The Hacker Crackdown: Preface to the electronic release
for copying info
"Credit cards didn't used to cost anything to get," says Gail Thackeray. "Now they cost forty bucks -- and that's all just to cover the costs from *rip-off artists.*"
Electronic nuisance criminals are parasites. One by one they're not much harm, no big deal. But they never come just one by one. They come in swarms, heaps, legions, sometimes whole subcultures. And they bite. Every time we buy a credit card today, we lose a little financial vitality to a particular species of bloodsucker.
What, in her expert opinion, are the worst forms of electronic crime, I ask, consulting my notes. Is it -- credit card fraud? Breaking into ATM bank machines? Phone-phreaking? Computer intrusions? Software viruses? Access-code theft? Records tampering? Software piracy? Pornographic bulletin boards? Satellite TV piracy? Theft of cable service? It's a long list. By the time I reach the end of it I feel rather depressed.
"Oh no," says Gail Thackeray, leaning forward over the table, her whole body gone stiff with energetic indignation, "the biggest damage is telephone fraud. Fake sweepstakes, fake charities. Boiler-room con operations. You could pay off the national debt with what these guys steal.... They target old people, they get hold of credit ratings and demographics, they rip off the old and the weak." The words come tumbling out of her.
It's low-tech stuff, your everyday boiler-room fraud. Grifters, conning people out of money over the phone, have been around for decades. This is where the word "phony" came from!
It's just that it's so much *easier* now, horribly facilitated by advances in technology and the byzantine structure of the modern phone system. The same professional fraudsters do it over and over, Thackeray tells me, they hide behind dense onion-shells of fake companies.... fake holding corporations nine or ten layers deep, registered all over the map. They get a phone installed under a false name in an empty safe-house. And then they call-forward everything out of that phone to yet another phone, a phone that may even be in another *state.* And they don't even pay the charges on their phones; after a month or so, they just split. Set up somewhere else in another Podunkville with the same seedy crew of veteran phone-crooks. They buy or steal commercial credit card reports, slap them on the PC, have a program pick out people over sixty-five who pay a lot to charities. A whole subculture living off this, merciless folks on the con.
"The 'light-bulbs for the blind' people," Thackeray muses, with a special loathing. "There's just no end to them."
We're sitting in a downtown diner in Phoenix, Arizona. It's a tough town, Phoenix. A state capital seeing some hard times. Even to a Texan like myself, Arizona state politics seem rather baroque. There was, and remains, endless trouble over the Martin Luther King holiday, the sort of stiff-necked, foot-shooting incident for which Arizona politics seem famous. There was Evan Mecham, the eccentric Republican millionaire governor who was impeached, after reducing state government to a ludicrous shambles. Then there was the national Keating scandal, involving Arizona savings and loans, in which both of Arizona's U.S. senators, DeConcini and McCain, played sadly prominent roles.
And the very latest is the bizarre AzScam case, in which state legislators were videotaped, eagerly taking cash from an informant of the Phoenix city police department, who was posing as a Vegas mobster.
"Oh," says Thackeray cheerfully. "These people are amateurs here, they thought they were finally getting to play with the big boys. They don't have the least idea how to take a bribe! It's not institutional corruption. It's not like back in Philly."
Gail Thackeray was a former prosecutor in Philadelphia. Now she's a former assistant attorney general of the State of Arizona. Since moving to Arizona in 1986, she had worked under the aegis of Steve Twist, her boss in the Attorney General's office. Steve Twist wrote Arizona's pioneering computer crime laws and naturally took an interest in seeing them enforced. It was a snug niche, and Thackeray's Organized Crime and Racketeering Unit won a national reputation for ambition and technical knowledgeability.... Until the latest election in Arizona. Thackeray's boss ran for the top job, and lost. The victor, the new Attorney General, apparently went to some pains to eliminate the bureaucratic traces of his rival, including his pet group -- Thackeray's group. Twelve people got their walking papers.
Now Thackeray's painstakingly assembled computer lab sits gathering dust somewhere in the glass-and-concrete Attorney General's HQ on 1275 Washington Street. Her computer-crime books, her painstakingly garnered back issues of phreak and hacker zines, all bought at her own expense -- are piled in boxes somewhere. The State of Arizona is simply not particularly interested in electronic racketeering at the moment.
At the moment of our interview, Gail Thackeray, officially unemployed, is working out of the county sheriff's office, living on her savings, and prosecuting several cases -- working 60-hour weeks, just as always -- for no pay at all. "I'm trying to train people," she mutters.
Half her life seems to be spent training people -- merely pointing out, to the naive and incredulous (such as myself) that this stuff is *actually going on out there.* It's a small world, computer crime. A young world. Gail Thackeray, a trim blonde Baby-Boomer who favors Grand Canyon white-water rafting to kill some slow time, is one of the world's most senior, most veteran "hacker-trackers." Her mentor was Donn Parker, the California think-tank theorist who got it all started 'way back in the mid-70s, the "grandfather of the field," "the great bald eagle of computer crime."
And what she has learned, Gail Thackeray teaches. Endlessly. Tirelessly. To anybody. To Secret Service agents and state police, at the Glynco, Georgia federal training center. To local police, on "roadshows" with her slide projector and notebook. To corporate security personnel. To journalists. To parents.
Even *crooks* look to Gail Thackeray for advice. Phone-phreaks call her at the office. They know very well who she is. They pump her for information on what the cops are up to, how much they know. Sometimes whole *crowds* of phone phreaks, hanging out on illegal conference calls, will call Gail Thackeray up. They taunt her. And, as always, they boast. Phone-phreaks, real stone phone-phreaks, simply *cannot shut up.* They natter on for hours.
Left to themselves, they mostly talk about the intricacies of ripping-off phones; it's about as interesting as listening to hot-rodders talk about suspension and distributor-caps. They also gossip cruelly about each other. And when talking to Gail Thackeray, they incriminate themselves. "I have tapes," Thackeray says coolly.
Phone phreaks just talk like crazy. "Dial-Tone" out in Alabama has been known to spend half-an-hour simply reading stolen phone-codes aloud into voice-mail answering machines. Hundreds, thousands of numbers, recited in a monotone, without a break -- an eerie phenomenon. When arrested, it's a rare phone phreak who doesn't inform at endless length on everybody he knows.
Hackers are no better. What other group of criminals, she asks rhetorically, publishes newsletters and holds conventions? She seems deeply nettled by the sheer brazenness of this behavior, though to an outsider, this activity might make one wonder whether hackers should be considered "criminals" at all. Skateboarders have magazines, and they trespass a lot. Hot rod people have magazines and they break speed limits and sometimes kill people....
I ask her whether it would be any loss to society if phone phreaking and computer hacking, as hobbies, simply dried up and blew away, so that nobody ever did it again.
She seems surprised. "No," she says swiftly. "Maybe a little... in the old days... the MIT stuff... But there's a lot of wonderful, legal stuff you can do with computers now, you don't have to break into somebody else's just to learn. You don't have that excuse. You can learn all you like."
Did you ever hack into a system? I ask.
The trainees do it at Glynco. Just to demonstrate system vulnerabilities. She's cool to the notion. Genuinely indifferent.
"What kind of computer do you have?"
"A Compaq 286LE," she mutters.
"What kind do you *wish* you had?"
At this question, the unmistakable light of true hackerdom flares in Gail Thackeray's eyes. She becomes tense, animated, the words pour out: "An Amiga 2000 with an IBM card and Mac emulation! The most common hacker machines are Amigas and Commodores. And Apples." If she had the Amiga, she enthuses, she could run a whole galaxy of seized computer-evidence disks on one convenient multifunctional machine. A cheap one, too. Not like the old Attorney General lab, where they had an ancient CP/M machine, assorted Amiga flavors and Apple flavors, a couple IBMS, all the utility software... but no Commodores. The workstations down at the Attorney General's are Wang dedicated word-processors. Lame machines tied in to an office net -- though at least they get on-line to the Lexis and Westlaw legal data services.
I don't say anything. I recognize the syndrome, though. This computer-fever has been running through segments of our society for years now. It's a strange kind of lust: K-hunger, Meg-hunger; but it's a shared disease; it can kill parties dead, as conversation spirals into the deepest and most deviant recesses of software releases and expensive peripherals.... The mark of the hacker beast. I have it too. The whole "electronic community," whatever the hell that is, has it. Gail Thackeray has it. Gail Thackeray is a hacker cop. My immediate reaction is a strong rush of indignant pity: *why doesn't somebody buy this woman her Amiga?!* It's not like she's asking for a Cray X-MP supercomputer mainframe; an Amiga's a sweet little cookie-box thing. We're losing zillions in organized fraud; prosecuting and defending a single hacker case in court can cost a hundred grand easy. How come nobody can come up with four lousy grand so this woman can do her job? For a hundred grand we could buy every computer cop in America an Amiga. There aren't that many of 'em.
Computers. The lust, the hunger, for computers. The loyalty they inspire, the intense sense of possessiveness. The culture they have bred. I myself am sitting in downtown Phoenix, Arizona because it suddenly occurred to me that the police might -- just *might* -- come and take away my computer. The prospect of this, the mere *implied threat,* was unbearable. It literally changed my life. It was changing the lives of many others. Eventually it would change everybody's life.
Gail Thackeray was one of the top computer-crime people in America. And I was just some novelist, and yet I had a better computer than hers. *Practically everybody I knew* had a better computer than Gail Thackeray and her feeble laptop 286. It was like sending the sheriff in to clean up Dodge City and arming her with a slingshot cut from an old rubber tire.
But then again, you don't need a howitzer to enforce the law. You can do a lot just with a badge. With a badge alone, you can basically wreak havoc, take a terrible vengeance on wrongdoers. Ninety percent of "computer crime investigation" is just "crime investigation:" names, places, dossiers, modus operandi, search warrants, victims, complainants, informants...
What will computer crime look like in ten years? Will it get better? Did "Sundevil" send 'em reeling back in confusion?
It'll be like it is now, only worse, she tells me with perfect conviction. Still there in the background, ticking along, changing with the times: the criminal underworld. It'll be like drugs are. Like our problems with alcohol. All the cops and laws in the world never solved our problems with alcohol. If there's something people want, a certain percentage of them are just going to take it. Fifteen percent of the populace will never steal. Fifteen percent will steal most anything not nailed down. The battle is for the hearts and minds of the remaining seventy percent.
And criminals catch on fast. If there's not "too steep a learning curve" -- if it doesn't require a baffling amount of expertise and practice -- then criminals are often some of the first through the gate of a new technology. Especially if it helps them to hide. They have tons of cash, criminals. The new communications tech -- like pagers, cellular phones, faxes, Federal Express -- were pioneered by rich corporate people, and by criminals. In the early years of pagers and beepers, dope dealers were so enthralled this technology that owing a beeper was practically prima facie evidence of cocaine dealing. CB radio exploded when the speed limit hit 55 and breaking the highway law became a national pastime. Dope dealers send cash by Federal Express, despite, or perhaps *because of,* the warnings in FedEx offices that tell you never to try this. Fed Ex uses X-rays and dogs on their mail, to stop drug shipments. That doesn't work very well.
Drug dealers went wild over cellular phones. There are simple methods of faking ID on cellular phones, making the location of the call mobile, free of charge, and effectively untraceable. Now victimized cellular companies routinely bring in vast toll-lists of calls to Colombia and Pakistan.
Judge Greene's fragmentation of the phone company is driving law enforcement nuts. Four thousand telecommunications companies. Fraud skyrocketing. Every temptation in the world available with a phone and a credit card number. Criminals untraceable. A galaxy of "new neat rotten things to do."
If there were one thing Thackeray would like to have, it would be an effective legal end-run through this new fragmentation minefield.
It would be a new form of electronic search warrant, an "electronic letter of marque" to be issued by a judge. It would create a new category of "electronic emergency." Like a wiretap, its use would be rare, but it would cut across state lines and force swift cooperation from all concerned. Cellular, phone, laser, computer network, PBXes, AT&T, Baby Bells, long-distance entrepreneurs, packet radio. Some document, some mighty court-order, that could slice through four thousand separate forms of corporate red-tape, and get her at once to the source of calls, the source of email threats and viruses, the sources of bomb threats, kidnapping threats. "From now on," she says, "the Lindberg baby will always die."
Something that would make the Net sit still, if only for a moment. Something that would get her up to speed. Seven league boots. That's what she really needs. "Those guys move in nanoseconds and I'm on the Pony Express."
And then, too, there's the coming international angle. Electronic crime has never been easy to localize, to tie to a physical jurisdiction. And phone-phreaks and hackers loathe boundaries, they jump them whenever they can. The English. The Dutch. And the Germans, especially the ubiquitous Chaos Computer Club. The Australians. They've all learned phone-phreaking from America. It's a growth mischief industry. The multinational networks are global, but governments and the police simply aren't. Neither are the laws. Or the legal frameworks for citizen protection.
One language is global, though -- English. Phone phreaks speak English; it's their native tongue even if they're Germans. English may have started in England but now it's the Net language; it might as well be called "CNNese."
Asians just aren't much into phone phreaking. They're the world masters at organized software piracy. The French aren't into phone-phreaking either. The French are into computerized industrial espionage.
In the old days of the MIT righteous hackerdom, crashing systems didn't hurt anybody. Not all that much, anyway. Not permanently. Now the players are more venal. Now the consequences are worse. Hacking will begin killing people soon. Already there are methods of stacking calls onto 911 systems, annoying the police, and possibly causing the death of some poor soul calling in with a genuine emergency. Hackers in Amtrak computers, or air-traffic control computers, will kill somebody someday. Maybe a lot of people. Gail Thackeray expects it.
And the viruses are getting nastier. The "Scud" virus is the latest one out. It wipes hard-disks.
According to Thackeray, the idea that phone-phreaks are Robin Hoods is a fraud. They don't deserve this repute. Basically, they pick on the weak. AT&T now protects itself with the fearsome ANI (Automatic Number Identification) trace capability. When AT&T wised up and tightened security generally, the phreaks drifted into the Baby Bells. The Baby Bells lashed out in 1989 and 1990, so the phreaks switched to smaller long-distance entrepreneurs. Today, they are moving into locally owned PBXes and voice-mail systems, which are full of security holes, dreadfully easy to hack. These victims aren't the moneybags Sheriff of Nottingham or Bad King John, but small groups of innocent people who find it hard to protect themselves, and who really suffer from these depredations. Phone phreaks pick on the weak. They do it for power. If it were legal, they wouldn't do it. They don't want service, or knowledge, they want the thrill of power-tripping. There's plenty of knowledge or service around, if you're willing to pay. Phone phreaks don't pay, they steal. It's because it is illegal that it feels like power, that it gratifies their vanity.
I leave Gail Thackeray with a handshake at the door of her office building -- a vast International-Style office building downtown. The Sheriff's office is renting part of it. I get the vague impression that quite a lot of the building is empty -- real estate crash.
In a Phoenix sports apparel store, in a downtown mall, I meet the "Sun Devil" himself. He is the cartoon mascot of Arizona State University, whose football stadium, "Sundevil," is near the local Secret Service HQ -- hence the name Operation Sundevil. The Sun Devil himself is named "Sparky." Sparky the Sun Devil is maroon and bright yellow, the school colors. Sparky brandishes a three-tined yellow pitchfork. He has a small mustache, pointed ears, a barbed tail, and is dashing forward jabbing the air with the pitchfork, with an expression of devilish glee.
Phoenix was the home of Operation Sundevil. The Legion of Doom ran a hacker bulletin board called "The Phoenix Project." An Australian hacker named "Phoenix" once burrowed through the Internet to attack Cliff Stoll, then bragged and boasted about it to *The New York Times.* This net of coincidence is both odd and meaningless.
The headquarters of the Arizona Attorney General, Gail Thackeray's former workplace, is on 1275 Washington Avenue. Many of the downtown streets in Phoenix are named after prominent American presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Madison....
After dark, all the employees go home to their suburbs. Washington, Jefferson and Madison -- what would be the Phoenix inner city, if there were an inner city in this sprawling automobile-bred town -- become the haunts of transients and derelicts. The homeless. The sidewalks along Washington are lined with orange trees. Ripe fallen fruit lies scattered like croquet balls on the sidewalks and gutters. No one seems to be eating them. I try a fresh one. It tastes unbearably bitter.
The Attorney General's office, built in 1981 during the Babbitt administration, is a long low two-story building of white cement and wall-sized sheets of curtain-glass. Behind each glass wall is a lawyer's office, quite open and visible to anyone strolling by. Across the street is a dour government building labelled simply ECONOMIC SECURITY, something that has not been in great supply in the American Southwest lately.
The offices are about twelve feet square. They feature tall wooden cases full of red-spined lawbooks; Wang computer monitors; telephones; Post-it notes galore. Also framed law diplomas and a general excess of bad Western landscape art. Ansel Adams photos are a big favorite, perhaps to compensate for the dismal specter of the parking-lot, two acres of striped black asphalt, which features gravel landscaping and some sickly-looking barrel cacti.
It has grown dark. Gail Thackeray has told me that the people who work late here, are afraid of muggings in the parking lot. It seems cruelly ironic that a woman tracing electronic racketeers across the interstate labyrinth of Cyberspace should fear an assault by a homeless derelict in the parking lot of her own workplace.
Perhaps this is less than coincidence. Perhaps these two seemingly disparate worlds are somehow generating one another. The poor and disenfranchised take to the streets, while the rich and computer-equipped, safe in their bedrooms, chatter over their modems. Quite often the derelicts kick the glass out and break in to the lawyers' offices, if they see something they need or want badly enough.
I cross the parking lot to the street behind the Attorney General's office. A pair of young tramps are bedding down on flattened sheets of cardboard, under an alcove stretching over the sidewalk. One tramp wears a glitter-covered T-shirt reading "CALIFORNIA" in Coca-Cola cursive. His nose and cheeks look chafed and swollen; they glisten with what seems to be Vaseline. The other tramp has a ragged long-sleeved shirt and lank brown hair parted in the middle. They both wear blue jeans coated in grime. They are both drunk.
"You guys crash here a lot?" I ask them.
They look at me warily. I am wearing black jeans, a black pinstriped suit jacket and a black silk tie. I have odd shoes and a funny haircut.
"It's our first time here," says the red-nosed tramp unconvincingly. There is a lot of cardboard stacked here. More than any two people could use.
"We usually stay at the Vinnie's down the street," says the brown-haired tramp, puffing a Marlboro with a meditative air, as he sprawls with his head on a blue nylon backpack. "The Saint Vincent's."
"You know who works in that building over there?" I ask, pointing.
The brown-haired tramp shrugs. "Some kind of attorneys, it says."
` We urge one another to take it easy. I give them five bucks.
A block down the street I meet a vigorous workman who is wheeling along some kind of industrial trolley; it has what appears to be a tank of propane on it.
We make eye contact. We nod politely. I walk past him. "Hey! Excuse me sir!" he says.
"Yes?" I say, stopping and turning.
"Have you seen," the guy says rapidly, "a black guy, about 6'7", scars on both his cheeks like this --" he gestures -- "wears a black baseball cap on backwards, wandering around here anyplace?"
"Sounds like I don't much *want* to meet him," I say.
"He took my wallet," says my new acquaintance. "Took it this morning. Y'know, some people would be *scared* of a guy like that. But I'm not scared. I'm from Chicago. I'm gonna hunt him down. We do things like that in Chicago."
"I went to the cops and now he's got an APB out on his ass," he says with satisfaction. "You run into him, you let me know."
"Okay," I say. "What is your name, sir?"
"And how can I reach you?"
"Oh," Stanley says, in the same rapid voice, "you don't have to reach, uh, me. You can just call the cops. Go straight to the cops." He reaches into a pocket and pulls out a greasy piece of pasteboard. "See, here's my report on him."
I look. The "report," the size of an index card, is labelled PRO-ACT: Phoenix Residents Opposing Active Crime Threat.... or is it Organized Against Crime Threat? In the darkening street it's hard to read. Some kind of vigilante group? Neighborhood watch? I feel very puzzled.
"Are you a police officer, sir?"
He smiles, seems very pleased by the question.
"No," he says.
` "But you are a 'Phoenix Resident?'"
"Would you believe a homeless person," Stanley says.
"Really? But what's with the..." For the first time I take a close look at Stanley's trolley. It's a rubber-wheeled thing of industrial metal, but the device I had mistaken for a tank of propane is in fact a water-cooler. Stanley also has an Army duffel-bag, stuffed tight as a sausage with clothing or perhaps a tent, and, at the base of his trolley, a cardboard box and a battered leather briefcase.
"I see," I say, quite at a loss. For the first time I notice that Stanley has a wallet. He has not lost his wallet at all. It is in his back pocket and chained to his belt. It's not a new wallet. It seems to have seen a lot of wear.
"Well, you know how it is, brother," says Stanley. Now that I know that he is homeless -- *a possible threat* -- my entire perception of him has changed in an instant. His speech, which once seemed just bright and enthusiastic, now seems to have a dangerous tang of mania. "I have to do this!" he assures me. "Track this guy down... It's a thing I do... you know... to keep myself together!" He smiles, nods, lifts his trolley by its decaying rubber handgrips.
"Gotta work together, y'know, " Stanley booms, his face alight with cheerfulness, "the police can't do everything!"
The gentlemen I met in my stroll in downtown Phoenix are the only computer illiterates in this book. To regard them as irrelevant, however, would be a grave mistake.
As computerization spreads across society, the populace at large is subjected to wave after wave of future shock. But, as a necessary converse, the "computer community" itself is subjected to wave after wave of incoming computer illiterates. How will those currently enjoying America's digital bounty regard, and treat, all this teeming refuse yearning to breathe free? Will the electronic frontier be another Land of Opportunity -- or an armed and monitored enclave, where the disenfranchised snuggle on their cardboard at the locked doors of our houses of justice?
Some people just don't get along with computers. They can't read. They can't type. They just don't have it in their heads to master arcane instructions in wirebound manuals. Somewhere, the process of computerization of the populace will reach a limit. Some people -- quite decent people maybe, who might have thrived in any other situation -- will be left irretrievably outside the bounds. What's to be done with these people, in the bright new shiny electroworld? How will they be regarded, by the mouse-whizzing masters of cyberspace? With contempt? Indifference? Fear?
In retrospect, it astonishes me to realize how quickly poor Stanley became a perceived threat. Surprise and fear are closely allied feelings. And the world of computing is full of surprises.
I met one character in the streets of Phoenix whose role in those book is supremely and directly relevant. That personage was Stanley's giant thieving scarred phantom. This phantasm is everywhere in this book. He is the specter haunting cyberspace.
Sometimes he's a maniac vandal ready to smash the phone system for no sane reason at all. Sometimes he's a fascist fed, coldly programming his mighty mainframes to destroy our Bill of Rights. Sometimes he's a telco bureaucrat, covertly conspiring to register all modems in the service of an Orwellian surveillance regime. Mostly, though, this fearsome phantom is a "hacker." He's strange, he doesn't belong, he's not authorized, he doesn't smell right, he's not keeping his proper place, he's not one of us. The focus of fear is the hacker, for much the same reasons that Stanley's fancied assailant is black.
Stanley's demon can't go away, because he doesn't exist. Despite singleminded and tremendous effort, he can't be arrested, sued, jailed, or fired. The only constructive way to do *anything* about him is to learn more about Stanley himself. This learning process may be repellent, it may be ugly, it may involve grave elements of paranoiac confusion, but it's necessary. Knowing Stanley requires something more than class-crossing condescension. It requires more than steely legal objectivity. It requires human compassion and sympathy.
To know Stanley is to know his demon. If you know the other guy's demon, then maybe you'll come to know some of your own. You'll be able to separate reality from illusion. And then you won't do your cause, and yourself, more harm than good. Like poor damned Stanley from Chicago did.