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our phone system. It is hard for us to
understand that we have sacrificed huge amounts of
initiative and control to senseless yet powerful machines.
When the phones fail, we want somebody to be
responsible. We want somebody to blame.
When the Crash of January 15 happened, the
American populace was simply not prepared to
understand that enormous landslides in cyberspace, like
the Crash itself, can happen, and can be nobody's fault in
particular. It was easier to believe, maybe even in some
odd way more reassuring to believe, that some evil person,
or evil group, had done this to us. "Hackers" had done it.
With a virus. A trojan horse. A software bomb. A dirty
plot of some kind. People believed this, responsible
people. In 1990, they were looking hard for evidence to
confirm their heartfelt suspicions.
And they would look in a lot of places.
Come 1991, however, the outlines of an apparent new
reality would begin to emerge from the fog.
On July 1 and 2, 1991, computer-software collapses in
telephone switching stations disrupted service in
Washington DC, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and San
Francisco. Once again, seemingly minor maintenance
problems had crippled the digital System 7. About twelve
million people were affected in the Crash of July 1, 1991.
Said the New York Times Service: "Telephone
company executives and federal regulators said they were
not ruling out the possibility of sabotage by computer
hackers, but most seemed to think the problems stemmed
from some unknown defect in the software running the
And sure enough, within the week, a red-faced
software company, DSC Communications Corporation of
Plano, Texas, owned up to "glitches" in the "signal transfer
point" software that DSC had designed for Bell Atlantic
and Pacific Bell. The immediate cause of the July 1 Crash
was a single mistyped character: one tiny typographical
flaw in one single line of the software. One mistyped
letter, in one single line, had deprived the nation's
of phone service. It was not particularly surprising that
this tiny flaw had escaped attention: a typical System 7
station requires *ten million* lines of code.
On Tuesday, September 17, 1991, came the most
spectacular outage yet. This case had nothing to do with
software failures -- at least, not directly. Instead, a
of AT&T's switching stations in New York City had simply
run out of electrical power and shut down cold. Their
back-up batteries had failed. Automatic warning systems
were supposed to warn of the loss of battery power, but
those automatic systems had failed as well.
This time, Kennedy, La Guardia, and Newark airports
all had their voice and data communications cut. This
horrifying event was particularly ironic, as attacks on
airport computers by hackers had long been a standard
nightmare scenario, much trumpeted by computer-
security experts who feared the computer underground.
There had even been a Hollywood thriller about sinister
hackers ruining airport computers -- *Die Hard II.*
Now AT&T itself had crippled airports with computer
malfunctions -- not just one airport, but three at once,
some of the busiest in the world.
Air traffic came to a standstill throughout the Greater
New York area, causing more than 500 flights to be
cancelled, in a spreading wave all over America and even
into Europe. Another 500 or so flights were delayed,
affecting, all in all, about 85,000 passengers. (One of
passengers was the chairman of the Federal
Stranded passengers in New York and New Jersey
were further infuriated to discover that they could not
even manage to make a long distance phone call, to
explain their delay to loved ones or business associates.
Thanks to the crash, about four and a half million
domestic calls, and half a million international calls,
to get through.
The September 17 NYC Crash, unlike the previous
ones, involved not a whisper of "hacker" misdeeds. On the
contrary, by 1991, AT&T itself was suffering much of the
vilification that had formerly been directed at hackers.
Congressmen were grumbling. So were state and federal
regulators. And so was the press.
For their part, ancient rival MCI took out snide full-
page newspaper ads in New York, offering their own long-
distance services for the "next time that AT&T goes down."
"You wouldn't find a classy company like AT&T using
such advertising," protested AT&T Chairman ъobert
Allen, unconvincingly. Once again, out came the full-page
AT&T apologies in newspapers, apologies for "an
inexcusable culmination of both human and mechanical
failure." (This time, however, AT&T offered no discount
on later calls. Unkind critics suggested that AT&T were
worried about setting any precedent for refunding the
financial losses caused by telephone crashes.)
Industry journals asked publicly if AT&T was "asleep
at the switch." The telephone network, America's
purported marvel of high-tech reliability, had gone down
three times in 18 months. *Fortune* magazine listed the
Crash of September 17 among the "Biggest Business
Goofs of 1991," cruelly parodying AT&T's ad campaign in
an article entitled "AT&T Wants You Back (Safely On the
Ground, God Willing)."
Why had those New York switching systems simply
run out of power? Because no human being had attended
to the alarm system. Why did the alarm systems blare
automatically, without any human being noticing?
Because the three telco technicians who *should* have
been listening were absent from their stations in the
power-room, on another floor of the building -- attending a
training class. A training class about the alarm systems
the power room!
"Crashing the System" was no longer
"unprecedented" by late 1991. On the contrary, it no
longer even seemed an oddity. By 1991, it was clear that
all the policemen in the world could no longer "protect"
the phone system from crashes. By far the worst crashes
the system had ever had, had been inflicted, by the
system, upon *itself.* And this time nobody was making
cocksure statements that this was an anomaly, something
that would never happen again. By 1991 the System's
defenders had met their nebulous Enemy, and the Enemy
was -- the System.
PAъT TWO: THE DIGITAL UNDEъGъOUND
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
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
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
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
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 ъubin. ъubin 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
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
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
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
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. ъipping-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
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
"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
In 1983, "Tom Edison" had his computer stolen and
his house set on fire by an arsonist. This was an
mortal blow to *TAP* (though the legendary name was to
be resurrected in 1990 by a young Kentuckian computer-
outlaw named "Predat0r.")
Ever since telephones began to make money, there
have been people willing to rob and defraud phone
companies. The legions of petty phone thieves vastly
outnumber those "phone phreaks" who "explore the
system" for the sake of the intellectual challenge. The
New York metropolitan area (long in the vanguard of
American crime) claims over 150,000 physical attacks on
pay telephones every year! Studied carefully, a modern
payphone reveals itself as a little fortress, carefully
designed and redesigned over generations, to resist coin-
slugs, zaps of electricity, chunks of coin-shaped ice,
prybars, magnets, lockpicks, blasting caps. Public pay-
phones must survive in a world of unfriendly, greedy
people, and a modern payphone is as exquisitely evolved
as a cactus.
Because the phone network pre-dates the computer
network, the scofflaws known as "phone phreaks" pre-date
the scofflaws known as "computer hackers." In practice,
today, the line between "phreaking" and "hacking" is very
blurred, just as the distinction between telephones and
computers has blurred. The phone system has been
digitized, and computers have learned to "talk" over
phone-lines. What's worse -- and this was the point of the
Mr. Jenkins of the Secret Service -- some hackers have
learned to steal, and some thieves have learned to hack.
Despite the blurring, one can still draw a few useful
behavioral distinctions between "phreaks" and "hackers."
Hackers are intensely interested in the "system" per se,
and enjoy relating to machines. "Phreaks" are more
social, manipulating the system in a rough-and-ready
fashion in order to get through to other human beings,
fast, cheap and under the table.
Phone phreaks love nothing so much as "bridges,"
illegal conference calls of ten or twelve chatting
conspirators, seaboard to seaboard, lasting for many hours
-- and running, of course, on somebody else's tab,
preferably a large corporation's.
As phone-phreak conferences wear on, people drop
out (or simply leave the phone off the hook, while they
sashay off to work or school or babysitting), and new
people are phoned up and invited to join in, from some
other continent, if possible. Technical trivia, boasts,
lies, head-trip deceptions, weird rumors, and cruel gossip
are all freely exchanged.
The lowest rung of phone-phreaking is the theft of
telephone access codes. Charging a phone call to
somebody else's stolen number is, of course, a pig-easy
way of stealing phone service, requiring practically no
technical expertise. This practice has been very
widespread, especially among lonely people without much
money who are far from home. Code theft has flourished
especially in college dorms, military bases, and,
notoriously, among roadies for rock bands. Of late, code
theft has spread very rapidly among Third Worlders in the
US, who pile up enormous unpaid long-distance bills to
the Caribbean, South America, and Pakistan.
The simplest way to steal phone-codes is simply to
look over a victim's shoulder as he punches-in his own
code-number on a public payphone. This technique is
known as "shoulder-surfing," and is especially common in
airports, bus terminals, and train stations. The code is
then sold by the thief for a few dollars. The buyer abusing
the code has no computer expertise, but calls his Mom in
New York, Kingston or Caracas and runs up a huge bill
with impunity. The losses from this primitive phreaking
activity are far, far greater than the monetary losses
caused by computer-intruding hackers.
In the mid-to-late 1980s, until the introduction of
sterner telco security measures, *computerized* code
theft worked like a charm, and was virtually omnipresent
throughout the digital underground, among phreaks and
hackers alike. This was accomplished through
programming one's computer to try random c