Phone breakdown unveils tale of cops and robbers

HOME COMPUTING

October 05, 1992|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

When American Telephone & Telegraph's long-distance system suddenly took a vacation on Jan. 15, 1990, much of the country's phone service was paralyzed.

The culprit turned out to be a few lines of bad code in the complex software that routed calls from one switching center to another.

But not everyone was convinced, or wanted to be convinced, by the explanation -- in particular a small cadre of lawmen and telephone security experts who had been waiting for a disaster like this to happen.

They knew that the nation's phone system had been under assault for years by an underground community of hackers and "phone phreaks." Some were outright thieves, using electronic bulletin boards to exchange stolen credit-card numbers. Some were restless adolescents looking for thrills. Some were anarchists, others had a firm philosophical commitment to the free exchange of information. A few had the technical know-how to break into the phone system's switching computers and reprogram them just for fun.

In the climate of fear that followed the AT&T breakdown, the federal agents, prosecutors and phone company security experts saw their chance to strike back. And they did, with an unprecedented series of well-publicized raids on the homes of hackers and suspected hackers across the country.

Bursting into the bedrooms of frightened teen-agers with guns drawn, and occasionally smashing down the doors of legitimate businesses -- some of which were only marginally connected with hackers -- they hauled away truckloads of computers, disks, books, manuals, business records, personal-size tape recorders, electronic games and virtually any piece of electrical equipment that wasn't nailed down.

They sent a few people to jail, but more were never charged. Some never saw their equipment again -- it had been confiscated as "evidence" in secret investigations that continued forever. Some targets spent tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees trying to get their equipment and records back.

The heavy-handed tactics raised serious questions about electronic eavesdropping, the First Amendment and the unfettered flow of information in an electronic age. The result was a legal and public relations counterattack from some of the most respected names in the computer industry, some embarrassing defeats for the government and a battle that continues today.

It's a fascinating story, and novelist-turned-journalist Bruce Sterling tells it with panache in "The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier" (Bantam, $23).

Mr. Sterling is concerned with the legal, ethical and social issues of cyberspace -- the electronic frontier, the place somewhere "out there" where people communicate by computer. It's a place that isn't governed by the normal physical laws of time, space and property. It's the place where more and more of the world's business is conducted. It's a place that has even given rise to its own science fiction genre, known in the trade as "cyberpunk."

In fact, Mr. Sterling is best known as a cyberpunk novelist (he's co-author of "The Difference Engine"). But if you expect "The Hacker Crackdown" to be a polemic in defense of the unlimited right to rip off Ma Bell, you'll be surprised.

Mr. Sterling has empathy for the characters on both sides of the battle, and the book is remarkably evenhanded. He sees the American phone system as one of the great technical and social achievements of the 20th century, and he understands the sense of pride and public service in the uptight people who run it and want to protect it.

He understands their horror when they find out that three Georgia members of the Legion of Doom -- a legendary association of hackers -- managed to break into Bell South's switching center and leave their mark by diverting calls headed for a Florida social service agency to a New York phone sex line.

Mr. Sterling likewise finds a lot to like in the police who track down the hackers -- Secret Service agents, homicide detectives turned computer cops and prosecutors who see themselves as voices in the wilderness. They not only stalk elusive prey who leave only the faintest electronic trail, but they also have to convince bemused judges and juries that the indecipherable babble they are presenting as testimony is actually evidence of a crime.

The author is also fascinated by the hackers themselves, electronic shadows named Knight Lightning, Prophet, Leftist, Captain Havoc, Phiber Optik, Acid Phreak and Scorpion. They're an oddball group -- swaggering adolescents operating out of their bedrooms, college students with too much time and technology on their hands, computer professionals who see themselves as the last outpost of electronic democracy, "phone phreaks" who revel in chatting for days on illicit international conference calls and a few outright crooks -- people whose motives are as mixed as the metaphors they choose for their names.

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