Bruce Sterling. CyberView
They called it "CyberView '91." Actually, it was another
"SummerCon" -- the traditional summer gathering of the American
hacker underground. The organizer, 21 year old "Knight
Lightning," had recently beaten a Computer Fraud and Abuse rap
that might have put him in jail for thirty years. A little
discretion seemed in order.
The convention hotel, a seedy but accommodating motor-inn
outside the airport in St Louis, had hosted SummerCons before.
Changing the name had been a good idea. If the staff were alert,
and actually recognized that these were the same kids back
again, things might get hairy.
The SummerCon '88 hotel was definitely out of bounds. The US
Secret Service had set up shop in an informant's room that year,
and videotaped the drunken antics of the now globally notorious
"Legion of Doom" through a one-way mirror. The running of
SummerCon '88 had constituted a major count of criminal
conspiracy against young Knight Lightning, during his 1990
That hotel inspired sour memories. Besides, people already got
plenty nervous playing "hunt the fed" at SummerCon gigs.
SummerCons generally featured at least one active federal
informant. Hackers and phone phreaks like to talk a lot. They
talk about phones and computers -- and about each other.
For insiders, the world of computer hacking is a lot like
Mexico. There's no middle class. There's a million little kids
screwing around with their modems, trying to snitch
long-distance phone-codes, trying to swipe pirated software --
the "kodez kidz" and "warez doodz." They're peons, "rodents."
Then there's a few earnest wannabes, up-and-comers, pupils. Not
many. Less of 'em every year, lately.
And then there's the heavy dudes. The players. The Legion of
Doom are definitely heavy. Germany's Chaos Computer Club are
very heavy, and already back out on parole after their dire
flirtation with the KGB. The Masters of Destruction in New York
are a pain in the ass to their rivals in the underground, but ya
gotta admit they are heavy. MoD's "Phiber Optik" has almost
completed his public-service sentence, too... "Phoenix" and his
crowd down in Australia used to be heavy, but nobody's heard
much out of "Nom" and "Electron" since the Australian heat came
down on them.
The people in Holland are very active, but somehow the Dutch
hackers don't quite qualify as "heavy." Probably because
computer-hacking is legal in Holland, and therefore nobody ever
gets busted for it. The Dutch lack the proper bad attitude,
America's answer to the Dutch menace began arriving in a steady
confusion of airport shuttle buses and college-kid decaying
junkers. A software pirate, one of the more prosperous
attendees, flaunted a radar-detecting black muscle-car. In some
dim era before the jet age, this section of St Louis had been a
mellow, fertile Samuel Clemens landscape. Waist-high summer
weeds still flourished beside the four-lane highway and the
airport feeder roads.
The graceless CyberView hotel had been slammed down onto this
landscape as if dropped from a B-52. A small office-tower loomed
in one corner beside a large parking garage. The rest was a
rambling mess of long, narrow, dimly lit corridors, with a small
swimming pool, a glass-fronted souvenir shop and a cheerless
dining room. The hotel was clean enough, and the staff, despite
provocation, proved adept at minding their own business. For
their part, the hackers seemed quite fond of the place.
The term "hacker" has had a spotted history. Real "hackers,"
traditional "hackers," like to write software programs. They
like to "grind code," plunging into its densest abstractions
until the world outside the computer terminal bleaches away.
Hackers tend to be portly white techies with thick fuzzy beards
who talk entirely in jargon, stare into space a lot, and laugh
briefly for no apparent reason. The CyberView crowd, though they
call themselves "hackers," are better identified as computer
intruders. They don't look, talk or act like 60s M.I.T.-style
Computer intruders of the 90s aren't stone pocket-protector
techies. They're young white suburban males, and look harmless
enough, but sneaky. They're much the kind of kid you might find
skinny-dipping at 2AM in a backyard suburban swimming pool. The
kind of kid who would freeze in the glare of the homeowner's
flashlight, then frantically grab his pants and leap over the
fence, leaving behind a half-empty bottle of tequila, a
Metallica T-shirt, and, probably, his wallet.
One might wonder why, in the second decade of the
personal-computer revolution, most computer intruders are still
suburban teenage white whiz-kids. Hacking-as-computer-intrusion
has been around long enough to have bred an entire generation of
serious, heavy-duty adult computer-criminals. Basically, this
simply hasn't occurred. Almost all computer intruders simply
quit after age 22. They get bored with it, frankly. Sneaking
around in other people's swimming pools simply loses its appeal.
They get out of school. They get married. They buy their own
swimming pools. They have to find some replica of a real life.
The Legion of Doom -- or rather, the Texas wing of LoD -- had
hit Saint Louis in high style, this weekend of June 22. The
Legion of Doom has been characterized as "a high-tech street
gang" by the Secret Service, but this is surely one of the
leakiest, goofiest and best-publicized criminal conspiracies in
Not much has been heard from Legion founder "Lex Luthor" in
recent years. The Legion's Atlanta wing, "Prophet," "Leftist,"
and "Urvile," are just now getting out of various prisons and
into Georgia halfway-houses. "Mentor" got married and writes
science fiction games for a living.
But "Erik Bloodaxe," "Doc Holiday," and "Malefactor" were here
-- in person, and in the current issues of TIME and NEWSWEEK.
CyberView offered a swell opportunity for the Texan Doomsters to
announce the formation of their latest high-tech, uhm,
organization, "Comsec Data Security Corporation."
Comsec boasts a corporate office in Houston, and a marketing
analyst, and a full-scale corporate computer-auditing program.
The Legion boys are now digital guns for hire. If you're a
well-heeled company, and you can cough up per diem and air-fare,
the most notorious computer-hackers in America will show right
up on your doorstep and put your digital house in order --
Bloodaxe, a limber, strikingly handsome young Texan with
shoulder-length blond hair, mirrored sunglasses, a tie, and a
formidable gift of gab, did the talking. Before some thirty of
his former peers, gathered upstairs over styrofoam coffee and
canned Coke in the hotel's Mark Twain Suite, Bloodaxe sternly
announced some home truths of modern computer security.
Most so-called "computer security experts" -- (Comsec's
competitors) -- are overpriced con artists! They charge gullible
corporations thousands of dollars a day, just to advise that
management lock its doors at night and use paper shredders.
Comsec Corp, on the other hand (with occasional consultant work
from Messrs. "Pain Hertz" and "Prime Suspect") boasts America's
most formidable pool of genuine expertise at actually breaking
Comsec, Bloodaxe continued smoothly, was not in the business of
turning-in any former hacking compatriots. Just in case anybody
here was, you know, worrying... On the other hand, any fool rash
enough to challenge a Comsec-secured system had better be
prepared for a serious hacker-to-hacker dust-up.
"Why would any company trust *you*?" someone asked languidly.
Malefactor, a muscular young Texan with close-cropped hair and
the build of a linebacker, pointed out that, once hired, Comsec
would be allowed inside the employer's computer system, and
would have no reason at all to "break in." Besides, Comsec
agents were to be licensed and bonded.
Bloodaxe insisted passionately that LoD were through with
hacking for good. There was simply no future in it. The time had
come for LoD to move on, and corporate consultation was their
new frontier. (The career options of committed computer
intruders are, when you come right down to it, remarkably slim.)
"We don't want to be flippin' burgers or sellin' life insurance
when we're thirty," Bloodaxe drawled. "And wonderin' when Tim
Foley is gonna come kickin' in the door!" (Special Agent Timothy
M. Foley of the US Secret Service has fully earned his
reputation as the most formidable anti-hacker cop in America.)
Bloodaxe sighed wistfully. "When I look back at my life... I can
see I've essentially been in school for eleven years, teaching
myself to be a computer security consultant."
After a bit more grilling, Bloodaxe finally got to the core of
matters. Did anybody here hate them now? he asked, almost
timidly. Did people think the Legion had sold out? Nobody
offered this opinion. The hackers shook their heads, they looked
down at their sneakers, they had another slug of Coke. They
didn't seem to see how it would make much difference, really.
Not at this point.
Over half the attendees of CyberView publicly claimed to be out
of the hacking game now. At least one hacker present -- (who had
shown up, for some reason known only to himself, wearing a blond
wig and a dime-store tiara, and was now catching flung Cheetos
in his styrofoam cup) -- already made his living "consulting"
for private investigators.
Almost everybody at CyberView had been busted, had had their
computers seized, or, had, at least, been interrogated -- and
when federal police put the squeeze on a teenage hacker, he
generally spills his guts.
By '87, a mere year or so after they plunged seriously into
anti-hacker enforcement, the Secret Service had workable
dossiers on everybody that really mattered. By '89, they had
files on practically every last soul in the American digital
underground. The problem for law enforcement has never been
finding out who the hackers are. The problem has been figuring
out what the hell they're really up to, and, harder yet, trying
to convince the public that it's actually important and
dangerous to public safety.
From the point of view of hackers, the cops have been acting
wacky lately. The cops, and their patrons in the telephone
companies, just don't understand the modern world of computers,
and they're scared. "They think there are masterminds running
spy-rings who employ us," a hacker told me. "They don't
understand that we don't do this for money, we do it for power
and knowledge." Telephone security people who reach out to the
underground are accused of divided loyalties and fired by
panicked employers. A young Missourian coolly psychoanalyzed the
opposition. "They're overdependent on things they don't
understand. They've surrendered their lives to computers."
"Power and knowledge" may seem odd motivations. "Money" is a lot
easier to understand. There are growing armies of professional
thieves who rip-off phone service for money. Hackers, though,
are into, well, power and knowledge. This has made them easier
to catch than the street-hustlers who steal access codes at
airports. It also makes them a lot scarier.
Take the increasingly dicey problems posed by "Bulletin Board
Systems." "Boards" are home computers tied to home telephone
lines, that can store and transmit data over the phone --
written texts, software programs, computer games, electronic
mail. Boards were invented in the late 70s, and, while the vast
majority of boards are utterly harmless, some few piratical
boards swiftly became the very backbone of the 80s digital
underground. Over half the attendees of CyberView ran their own
boards. "Knight Lightning" had run an electronic magazine,
"Phrack," that appeared on many underground boards across
Boards are mysterious. Boards are conspiratorial. Boards have
been accused of harboring: Satanists, anarchists, thieves, child
pornographers, Aryan nazis, religious cultists, drug dealers --
and, of course, software pirates, phone phreaks, and hackers.
Underground hacker boards were scarcely reassuring, since they
often sported terrifying sci-fi heavy-metal names, like "Speed
Demon Elite," "Demon Roach Underground," and "Black Ice."
(Modern hacker boards tend to feature defiant titles like
"Uncensored BBS," "Free Speech," and "Fifth Amendment.")
Underground boards carry stuff as vile and scary as, say,
60s-era underground newspapers -- from the time when Yippies hit
Chicago and ROLLING STONE gave away free roach-clips to
subscribers. "Anarchy files" are popular features on outlaw
boards, detailing how to build pipe-bombs, how to make Molotovs,
how to brew methedrine and LSD, how to break and enter
buildings, how to blow up bridges, the easiest ways to kill
someone with a single blow of a blunt object -- and these boards
bug straight people a lot. Never mind that all this data is
publicly available in public libraries where it is protected by
the First Amendment. There is something about its being on a
computer -- where any teenage geek with a modem and keyboard can
read it, and print it out, and spread it around, free as air --
there is something about that, that is creepy.
"Brad" is a New Age pagan from Saint Louis who runs a service
known as "WEIRDBASE," available on an international network of
boards called "FidoNet." Brad was mired in an interminable
scandal when his readers formed a spontaneous underground
railroad to help a New Age warlock smuggle his teenage daughter
out of Texas, away from his fundamentalist Christian in-laws,
who were utterly convinced that he had murdered his wife and
intended to sacrifice his daughter to -- *Satan*! The scandal
made local TV in Saint Louis. Cops came around and grilled Brad.
The patchouli stench of Aleister Crowley hung heavy in the air.
There was just no end to the hassle.
If you're into something goofy and dubious and you have a board
about it, it can mean real trouble. Science-fiction game
publisher Steve Jackson had his board seized in 1990. Some
cryogenics people in California, who froze a woman for
post-mortem preservation before she was officially, er, "dead,"
had their computers seized. People who sell dope-growing
equipment have had their computers seized. In 1990, boards all
over America went down: Illuminati, CLLI Code, Phoenix Project,
Dr. Ripco. Computers are seized as "evidence," but since they
can be kept indefinitely for study by police, this veers close
to confiscation and punishment without trial. One good reason
why Mitchell Kapor showed up at CyberView.
Mitch Kapor was the co-inventor of the mega-selling business
program LOTUS 1-2-3 and the founder of the software giant, Lotus
Development Corporation. He is currently the president of a
newly-formed electronic civil liberties group, the Electronic
Frontier Foundation. Kapor, now 40, customarily wears Hawaiian
shirts and is your typical post-hippie cybernetic
multimillionaire. He and EFF's chief legal counsel, "Johnny
Mnemonic," had flown in for the gig in Kapor's private jet.
Kapor had been dragged willy-nilly into the toils of the digital
underground when he received an unsolicited floppy-disk in the
mail, from an outlaw group known as the "NuPrometheus League."
These rascals (still not apprehended) had stolen confidential
proprietary software from Apple Computer, Inc., and were
distributing it far and wide in order to blow Apple's trade
secrets and humiliate the company. Kapor assumed that the disk
was a joke, or, more likely, a clever scheme to infect his
machines with a computer virus.
But when the FBI showed up, at Apple's behest, Kapor was shocked
at the extent of their naivete. Here were these well-dressed
federal officials, politely "Mr. Kapor"- ing him right and left,
ready to carry out a war to the knife against evil marauding
"hackers." They didn't seem to grasp that "hackers" had built
the entire personal computer industry. Jobs was a hacker,
Wozniak too, even Bill Gates, the youngest billionaire in the
history of America -- all "hackers." The new buttoned-down
regime at Apple had blown its top, and as for the feds, they
were willing, but clueless. Well, let's be charitable -- the
feds were "cluefully challenged." "Clue-impaired." "Differently
Back in the 70s (as Kapor recited to the hushed and respectful
young hackers) he himself had practiced "software piracy" -- as
those activities would be known today. Of course, back then,
"computer software" hadn't been a major industry -- but today,
"hackers" had police after them for doing things that the
industry's own pioneers had pulled routinely. Kapor was irate
about this. His own personal history, the lifestyle of his
pioneering youth, was being smugly written out of the historical
record by the latter-day corporate androids. Why, nowadays,
people even blanched when Kapor forthrightly declared that he'd
done LSD in the Sixties.
Quite a few of the younger hackers grew alarmed at this
admission of Kapor's, and gazed at him in wonder, as if
expecting him to explode.
"The law only has sledgehammers, when what we need are parking
tickets and speeding tickets," Kapor said. Anti-hacker hysteria
had gripped the nation in 1990. Huge law enforcement efforts had
been mounted against illusory threats. In Washington DC, on the
very day when the formation of the Electronic Frontier
Foundation had been announced, a Congressional committee had
been formally presented with the plotline of a thriller movie --
DIE HARD II, in which hacker terrorists seize an airport
computer -- as if this Hollywood fantasy posed a clear and
present danger to the American republic. A similar hacker
thriller, WAR GAMES, had been presented to Congress in the
mid-80s. Hysteria served no one's purposes, and created a
stampede of foolish and unenforceable laws likely to do more
harm than good.
Kapor didn't want to "paper over the differences" between his
Foundation and the underground community. In the firm opinion of
EFF, intruding into computers by stealth was morally wrong. Like
stealing phone service, it deserved punishment. Not draconian
ruthlessness, though. Not the ruination of a youngster's entire
After a lively and quite serious discussion of digital
free-speech issues, the entire crew went to dinner at an Italian
eatery in the local mall, on Kapor's capacious charge-tab.
Having said his piece and listened with care, Kapor began
glancing at his watch. Back in Boston, his six-year-old son was
waiting at home, with a new Macintosh computer-game to tackle. A
quick phone-call got the jet warmed up, and Kapor and his lawyer
With the forces of conventionality -- such as they were -- out
of the picture, the Legion of Doom began to get heavily into
"Mexican Flags." A Mexican Flag is a lethal, multi-layer
concoction of red grenadine, white tequila and green
creme-de-menthe. It is topped with a thin layer of 150 proof
rum, set afire, and sucked up through straws.
The formal fire-and-straw ritual soon went by the board as
things began to disintegrate. Wandering from room to room, the
crowd became howlingly rowdy, though without creating trouble,
as the CyberView crowd had wisely taken over an entire wing of
"Crimson Death," a cheerful, baby-faced young hardware expert
with a pierced nose and three earrings, attempted to hack the
hotel's private phone system, but only succeeded in cutting off
phone service to his own room.
Somebody announced there was a cop guarding the next wing of the
hotel. Mild panic ensued. Drunken hackers crowded to the window.
A gentleman slipped quietly through the door of the next wing
wearing a short terrycloth bathrobe and spangled silk boxer
Spouse-swappers had taken over the neighboring wing of the
hotel, and were holding a private weekend orgy. It was a St
Louis swingers' group. It turned out that the cop guarding the
entrance way was an off-duty swinging cop. He'd angrily
threatened to clobber Doc Holiday. Another swinger almost
punched-out "Bill from RNOC," whose prurient hacker curiosity,
naturally, knew no bounds.
It was not much of a contest. As the weekend wore on and the
booze flowed freely, the hackers slowly but thoroughly
infiltrated the hapless swingers, who proved surprisingly open
and tolerant. At one point, they even invited a group of hackers
to join in their revels, though "they had to bring their own
Despite the pulverizing effects of numerous Mexican Flags,
Comsec Data Security seemed to be having very little trouble on
that score. They'd vanished downtown brandishing their
full-color photo in TIME magazine, and returned with an
impressive depth-core sample of St Louis womanhood, one of whom,
in an idle moment, broke into Doc Holiday's room, emptied his
wallet, and stole his Sony tape recorder and all his shirts.
Events stopped dead for the season's final episode of STAR TREK:
THE NEXT GENERATION. The show passed in rapt attention -- then
it was back to harassing the swingers. Bill from RNOC cunningly
out-waited the swinger guards, infiltrated the building, and
decorated all the closed doors with globs of mustard from a
In the hungover glare of Sunday morning, a hacker proudly showed
me a large handlettered placard reading PRIVATE -- STOP, which
he had stolen from the unlucky swingers on his way out of their
wing. Somehow, he had managed to work his way into the building,
and had suavely ingratiated himself into a bedroom, where he had
engaged a swinging airline ticket-agent in a long and most
informative conversation about the security of airport computer
terminals. The ticket agent's wife, at the time, was sprawled on
the bed engaging in desultory oral sex with a third gentleman.
It transpired that she herself did a lot of work on LOTUS 1-2-3.
She was thrilled to hear that the program's inventor, Mitch
Kapor, had been in that very hotel, that very weekend.
Mitch Kapor. Right over there? Here in St Louis? Wow. Isn't life
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