Computer hacker has to quit cold turkey After prison term, he seeks relief from order barring proximity


LOS ANGELES -- Kevin Lee Poulsen could tap your telephone.

He was so adept at manipulating Pacific Bell computers that he was able to spy on FBI agents while they spied on crooks.

And before his 1991 arrest, he won a Porsche and some $21,000 by using computers to rig phone-in contests at three Los Angeles radio stations.

Now just out of prison, this 30-year-old computer wiz finds himself stuck in a computerless world. Having spent a record five years behind bars for hacking, Poulsen is barred from getting anywhere near his beloved machines at home and on the job for the next three years.

So, instead of using his megabyte brilliance and digital deftness to re-enter society, Poulsen fears that he will end up selling cowboy boots and big belt buckles at a country-and-western store.

"It's the only place where I've been greeted with a positive attitude," he said last week.

"I can't get a job that I am qualified for, basically. The only thing I am qualified to do is computer stuff. Computer programming. Computer administration."

Life without computers has been difficult in other ways as well.

He had to ask his probation officer for permission to drive because most cars contain tiny on-board computers that regulate the engine.

His parents had to get rid of their computer before he could live with them in their North Hollywood home.

Every time he enters a library, he wonders whether he will violate probation because computers have replaced paper card catalogs.

In hopes of having some of the computer restrictions relaxed, Poulsen has filed a motion in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. A hearing is set for Sept. 3.

"All of these restrictions reach well beyond public safety concerns and are clearly punitive," Poulsen's motion says.

Poulsen also wants the judge to allow him to go to college for his bachelor's degree, rather than work full time to make restitution to the radio stations.

Poulsen said he wants to major in, of all things, computer science.

Without a degree, he said, it would take longer than the three years that the judge allotted to repay the stations.

One prosecutor says Poulsen should not be allowed anywhere near computers, that he cannot be trusted. "Given the havoc he wrought with computers, it would be irresponsible to allow him to have untethered access to computers," said Assistant U.S. Attorney David Schindler, who handled the case in Los Angeles.

Poulsen insists that he is reformed.

"I still think a little bit of anarchism in the hacker culture is a good thing, but I am too old to be dyeing my hair and hiding out in motel rooms and dealing with the police. It is time to settle down and have some kind of stable life, which is why I want to go back to school."

Still, Poulsen said he believes hackers like himself perform a service by spying on the government and phone company.

"The government and its corporate allies have so much power and they hide themselves with so much secrecy that there is no way within the system for that to be entirely checked," Poulsen said.

"The fact that hackers are out there and keeping tabs on this and exploring what is going on provides a deterrence to serious abuses of power," he said.

Telephone companies can tap phones without a court-approved warrant, he said.

Pacific Bell security agent John von Brauch agreed with Poulsen, that phone companies can legally install taps without warrants.

"There are certain circumstances that would allow us to do that tap. It is certainly not used a lot," he said.

But he said computer hackers are breaking the law by doing the same.

"All that hackers do, as it relates to a telephone company, is cause us to spend money, which is ultimately passed onto the rate payers to secure the network in ever increasing ways," von Brauch said.

Pub Date: 8/19/96

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