From The Hacker Crackdown
, by Bruce Sterling
See: The Hacker Crackdown: Preface to the electronic release
for copying info
"Computers, Freedom and Privacy." Four hundred people from every conceivable corner of America's electronic community. As a science fiction writer, I have been to some weird gigs in my day, but this thing is truly *beyond the pale.* Even "Cyberthon," Point Foundation's "Woodstock of Cyberspace" where Bay Area psychedelia collided headlong with the emergent world of computerized virtual reality, was like a Kiwanis Club gig compared to this astonishing do.
The "electronic community" had reached an apogee. Almost every principal in this book is in attendance. Civil Libertarians. Computer Cops. The Digital Underground. Even a few discreet telco people. Colorcoded dots for lapel tags are distributed. Free Expression issues. Law Enforcement. Computer Security. Privacy. Journalists. Lawyers. Educators. Librarians. Programmers. Stylish punk-black dots for the hackers and phone phreaks. Almost everyone here seems to wear eight or nine dots, to have six or seven professional hats.
It is a community. Something like Lebanon perhaps, but a digital nation. People who had feuded all year in the national press, people who entertained the deepest suspicions of one another's motives and ethics, are now in each others' laps. "Computers, Freedom and Privacy" had every reason in the world to turn ugly, and yet except for small irruptions of puzzling nonsense from the convention's token lunatic, a surprising bonhomie reigned. CFP was like a wedding-party in which two lovers, unstable bride and charlatan groom, tie the knot in a clearly disastrous matrimony.
It is clear to both families -- even to neighbors and random guests -- that this is not a workable relationship, and yet the young couple's desperate attraction can brook no further delay. They simply cannot help themselves. Crockery will fly, shrieks from their newlywed home will wake the city block, divorce waits in the wings like a vulture over the Kalahari, and yet this is a wedding, and there is going to be a child from it. Tragedies end in death; comedies in marriage. The Hacker Crackdown is ending in marriage. And there will be a child.
From the beginning, anomalies reign. John Perry Barlow, cyberspace ranger, is here. His color photo in *The New York Times Magazine,* Barlow scowling in a grim Wyoming snowscape, with long black coat, dark hat, a Macintosh SE30 propped on a fencepost and an awesome frontier rifle tucked under one arm, will be the single most striking visual image of the Hacker Crackdown. And he is CFP's guest of honor -- along with Gail Thackeray of the FCIC! What on earth do they expect these dual guests to do with each other? Waltz?
Barlow delivers the first address. Uncharacteristically, he is hoarse -- the sheer volume of roadwork has worn him down. He speaks briefly, congenially, in a plea for conciliation, and takes his leave to a storm of applause.
Then Gail Thackeray takes the stage. She's visibly nervous. She's been on the Well a lot lately. Reading those Barlow posts. Following Barlow is a challenge to anyone. In honor of the famous lyricist for the Grateful Dead, she announces reedily, she is going to read -- *a poem.* A poem she has composed herself.
It's an awful poem, doggerel in the rollicking meter of Robert W. Service's *The Cremation of Sam McGee,* but it is in fact, a poem. It's the *Ballad of the Electronic Frontier!* A poem about the Hacker Crackdown and the sheer unlikelihood of CFP. It's full of in-jokes. The score or so cops in the audience, who are sitting together in a nervous claque, are absolutely cracking-up. Gail's poem is the funniest goddamn thing they've ever heard. The hackers and civil-libs, who had this woman figured for Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS, are staring with their jaws hanging loosely. Never in the wildest reaches of their imagination had they figured Gail Thackeray was capable of such a totally off-the-wall move. You can see them punching their mental CONTROL-RESET buttons. Jesus! This woman's a hacker weirdo! She's *just like us!* God, this changes everything!
Al Bayse, computer technician for the FBI, had been the only cop at the CPSR Roundtable, dragged there with his arm bent by Dorothy Denning. He was guarded and tightlipped at CPSR Roundtable; a "lion thrown to the Christians."
At CFP, backed by a claque of cops, Bayse suddenly waxes eloquent and even droll, describing the FBI's "NCIC 2000", a gigantic digital catalog of criminal records, as if he has suddenly become some weird hybrid of George Orwell and George Gobel. Tentatively, he makes an arcane joke about statistical analysis. At least a third of the crowd laughs aloud.
"They didn't laugh at that at my last speech," Bayse observes. He had been addressing cops -- *straight* cops, not computer people. It had been a worthy meeting, useful one supposes, but nothing like *this.* There has never been *anything* like this. Without any prodding, without any preparation, people in the audience simply begin to ask questions. Longhairs, freaky people, mathematicians. Bayse is answering, politely, frankly, fully, like a man walking on air. The ballroom's atmosphere crackles with surreality. A female lawyer behind me breaks into a sweat and a hot waft of surprisingly potent and musky perfume flows off her pulse-points.
People are giddy with laughter. People are interested, fascinated, their eyes so wide and dark that they seem eroticized. Unlikely daisy-chains form in the halls, around the bar, on the escalators: cops with hackers, civil rights with FBI, Secret Service with phone phreaks.
Gail Thackeray is at her crispest in a white wool sweater with a tiny Secret Service logo. "I found Phiber Optik at the payphones, and when he saw my sweater, he turned into a *pillar of salt!*" she chortles.
Phiber discusses his case at much length with his arresting officer, Don Delaney of the New York State Police. After an hour's chat, the two of them look ready to begin singing "Auld Lang Syne." Phiber finally finds the courage to get his worst complaint off his chest. It isn't so much the arrest. It was the *charge.* Pirating service off 900 numbers. I'm a *programmer,* Phiber insists. This lame charge is going to hurt my reputation. It would have been cool to be busted for something happening, like Section 1030 computer intrusion. Maybe some kind of crime that's scarcely been invented yet. Not lousy phone fraud. Phooey.
Delaney seems regretful. He had a mountain of possible criminal charges against Phiber Optik. The kid's gonna plead guilty anyway. He's a first timer, they always plead. Coulda charged the kid with most anything, and gotten the same result in the end. Delaney seems genuinely sorry not to have gratified Phiber in this harmless fashion. Too late now. Phiber's pled already. All water under the bridge. Whaddya gonna do?
Delaney's got a good grasp on the hacker mentality. He held a press conference after he busted a bunch of Masters of Deception kids. Some journo had asked him: "Would you describe these people as *geniuses?*" Delaney's deadpan answer, perfect: "No, I would describe these people as *defendants.*" Delaney busts a kid for hacking codes with repeated random dialling. Tells the press that NYNEX can track this stuff in no time flat nowadays, and a kid has to be *stupid* to do something so easy to catch. Dead on again: hackers don't mind being thought of as Genghis Khan by the straights, but if there's anything that really gets 'em where they live, it's being called *dumb.*
Won't be as much fun for Phiber next time around. As a second offender he's gonna see prison. Hackers break the law. They're not geniuses, either. They're gonna be defendants. And yet, Delaney muses over a drink in the hotel bar, he has found it impossible to treat them as common criminals. Delaney knows criminals. These kids, by comparison, are clueless -- there is just no crook vibe off of them, they don't smell right, they're just not *bad.*
Delaney has seen a lot of action. He did Vietnam. He's been shot at, he has shot people. He's a homicide cop from New York. He has the appearance of a man who has not only seen the shit hit the fan but has seen it splattered across whole city blocks and left to ferment for years. This guy has been around.
He listens to Steve Jackson tell his story. The dreamy game strategist has been dealt a bad hand. He has played it for all he is worth. Under his nerdish SF-fan exterior is a core of iron. Friends of his say Steve Jackson believes in the rules, believes in fair play. He will never compromise his principles, never give up. "Steve," Delaney says to Steve Jackson, "they had some balls, whoever busted you. You're all right!" Jackson, stunned, falls silent and actually blushes with pleasure.
Neidorf has grown up a lot in the past year. The kid is a quick study, you gotta give him that. Dressed by his mom, the fashion manager for a national clothing chain, Missouri college techie-frat Craig Neidorf out-dappers everyone at this gig but the toniest East Coast lawyers. The iron jaws of prison clanged shut without him and now law school beckons for Neidorf. He looks like a larval Congressman.
Not a "hacker," our Mr. Neidorf. He's not interested in computer science. Why should he be? He's not interested in writing C code the rest of his life, and besides, he's seen where the chips fall. To the world of computer science he and *Phrack* were just a curiosity. But to the world of law.... The kid has learned where the bodies are buried. He carries his notebook of press clippings wherever he goes.
Phiber Optik makes fun of Neidorf for a Midwestern geek, for believing that "Acid Phreak" does acid and listens to acid rock. Hell no. Acid's never done *acid!* Acid's into *acid house music.* Jesus. The very idea of doing LSD. Our *parents* did LSD, ya clown.
Thackeray suddenly turns upon Craig Neidorf the full lighthouse glare of her attention and begins a determined half-hour attempt to *win the boy over.* The Joan of Arc of Computer Crime is *giving career advice to Knight Lightning!* "Your experience would be very valuable -- a real asset," she tells him with unmistakeable sixty-thousand-watt sincerity. Neidorf is fascinated. He listens with unfeigned attention. He's nodding and saying yes ma'am. Yes, Craig, you too can forget all about money and enter the glamorous and horribly underpaid world of PROSECUTING COMPUTER CRIME! You can put your former friends in prison -- ooops....
You cannot go on dueling at modem's length indefinitely. You cannot beat one another senseless with rolled-up press-clippings. Sooner or later you have to come directly to grips. And yet the very act of assembling here has changed the entire situation drastically. John Quarterman, author of *The Matrix,* explains the Internet at his symposium. It is the largest news network in the world, it is growing by leaps and bounds, and yet you cannot measure Internet because you cannot stop it in place. It cannot stop, because there is no one anywhere in the world with the authority to stop Internet. It changes, yes, it grows, it embeds itself across the post-industrial, postmodern world and it generates community wherever it touches, and it is doing this all by itself.
Phiber is different. A very fin de siecle kid, Phiber Optik. Barlow says he looks like an Edwardian dandy. He does rather. Shaven neck, the sides of his skull cropped hip-hop close, unruly tangle of black hair on top that looks pomaded, he stays up till four a.m. and misses all the sessions, then hangs out in payphone booths with his acoustic coupler gutsily CRACKING SYSTEMS RIGHT IN THE MIDST OF THE HEAVIEST LAW ENFORCEMENT DUDES IN THE U.S., or at least *pretending* to.... Unlike "Frank Drake." Drake, who wrote Dorothy Denning out of nowhere, and asked for an interview for his cheapo cyberpunk fanzine, and then started grilling her on her ethics. She was squirmin', too.... Drake, scarecrow-tall with his floppy blond mohawk, rotting tennis shoes and black leather jacket lettered ILLUMINATI in red, gives off an unmistakeable air of the bohemian literatus. Drake is the kind of guy who reads British industrial design magazines and appreciates William Gibson because the quality of the prose is so tasty. Drake could never touch a phone or a keyboard again, and he'd still have the nose-ring and the blurry photocopied fanzines and the sampled industrial music. He's a radical punk with a desktop-publishing rig and an Internet address. Standing next to Drake, the diminutive Phiber looks like he's been physically coagulated out of phone-lines. Born to phreak.
Dorothy Denning approaches Phiber suddenly. The two of them are about the same height and body-build. Denning's blue eyes flash behind the round window-frames of her glasses. "Why did you say I was 'quaint?'" she asks Phiber, quaintly.
It's a perfect description but Phiber is nonplussed... "Well, I uh, you know...."
"I also think you're quaint, Dorothy," I say, novelist to the rescue, the journo gift of gab... She is neat and dapper and yet there's an arcane quality to her, something like a Pilgrim Maiden behind leaded glass; if she were six inches high Dorothy Denning would look great inside a china cabinet... The Cryptographeress.... The Cryptographrix... whatever... Weirdly, Peter Denning looks just like his wife, you could pick this gentleman out of a thousand guys as the soulmate of Dorothy Denning. Wearing tailored slacks, a spotless fuzzy varsity sweater, and a neatly knotted academician's tie.... This fineboned, exquisitely polite, utterly civilized and hyperintelligent couple seem to have emerged from some cleaner and finer parallel universe, where humanity exists to do the Brain Teasers column in Scientific American. Why does this Nice Lady hang out with these unsavory characters?
Because the time has come for it, that's why. Because she's the best there is at what she does.
Donn Parker is here, the Great Bald Eagle of Computer Crime.... With his bald dome, great height, and enormous Lincoln-like hands, the great visionary pioneer of the field plows through the lesser mortals like an icebreaker.... His eyes are fixed on the future with the rigidity of a bronze statue.... Eventually, he tells his audience, all business crime will be computer crime, because businesses will do everything through computers. "Computer crime" as a category will vanish.
In the meantime, passing fads will flourish and fail and evaporate.... Parker's commanding, resonant voice is sphinxlike, everything is viewed from some eldritch valley of deep historical abstraction... Yes, they've come and they've gone, these passing flaps in the world of digital computation.... The radio-frequency emanation scandal... KGB and MI5 and CIA do it every day, it's easy, but nobody else ever has.... The salami-slice fraud, mostly mythical... "Crimoids," he calls them.... Computer viruses are the current crimoid champ, a lot less dangerous than most people let on, but the novelty is fading and there's a crimoid vacuum at the moment, the press is visibly hungering for something more outrageous.... The Great Man shares with us a few speculations on the coming crimoids.... Desktop Forgery! Wow.... Computers stolen just for the sake of the information within them -- data-napping! Happened in Britain a while ago, could be the coming thing.... Phantom nodes in the Internet!
Parker handles his overhead projector sheets with an ecclesiastical air... He wears a grey double-breasted suit, a light blue shirt, and a very quiet tie of understated maroon and blue paisley... Aphorisms emerge from him with slow, leaden emphasis... There is no such thing as an adequately secure computer when one faces a sufficiently powerful adversary.... Deterrence is the most socially useful aspect of security... People are the primary weakness in all information systems... The entire baseline of computer security must be shifted upward.... Don't ever violate your security by publicly describing your security measures...
People in the audience are beginning to squirm, and yet there is something about the elemental purity of this guy's philosophy that compels uneasy respect.... Parker sounds like the only sane guy left in the lifeboat, sometimes. The guy who can prove rigorously, from deep moral principles, that Harvey there, the one with the broken leg and the checkered past, is the one who has to be, err.... that is, Mr. Harvey is best placed to make the necessary sacrifice for the security and indeed the very survival of the rest of this lifeboat's crew.... Computer security, Parker informs us mournfully, is a nasty topic, and we wish we didn't have to have it... The security expert, armed with method and logic, must think -- imagine -- everything that the adversary might do before the adversary might actually do it. It is as if the criminal's dark brain were an extensive subprogram within the shining cranium of Donn Parker. He is a Holmes whose Moriarty does not quite yet exist and so must be perfectly simulated.
CFP is a stellar gathering, with the giddiness of a wedding. It is a happy time, a happy ending, they know their world is changing forever tonight, and they're proud to have been there to see it happen, to talk, to think, to help.
And yet as night falls, a certain elegiac quality manifests itself, as the crowd gathers beneath the chandeliers with their wineglasses and dessert plates. Something is ending here, gone forever, and it takes a while to pinpoint it.
It is the End of the Amateurs.