It just hasn't been a good year for malls.

First there was the incident in June at a hacker gathering in St. Louis called Summercon. Mall cops at the Northwest Plaza told the hackers they weren't allowed to wear baseball caps backwards. The hackers, in their innocent naivete, questioned authority. It happened again, this time at the November 6th 2600 meeting in Washington DC. But clothing wasn't the issue in this incident. Instead, the mall cops didn't like the hackers' very existence. Or so it seemed.

It started like most other 2600 meetings - people gather at tables in a food court and start talking to each other. Remarkably similar to what real people do. But these were no ordinary people. These were hackers and the mall police had plans for them. According to an eyewitness: "At about 5:15 someone noticed two people on the second story taking pictures of the group with a camera. Most of the members saw the two people walk away with a camera in hand and we started looking around for more people. [One hacker] noted that he didn't like the guys standing up on the 'fed perch' on the second level and that they looked like feds.... At about 5:30... a mall security guard stopped me and told me to sit down because I was to be detained for questioning or some shit like that. I complied and waited. Now about eight guards were there surrounding the meeting. One guard approached the group and said that he saw someone with a 'stun gun' of some sort and would like to search the person's bag.... The stun gun turned out to be a Whisper 2000 listening device. Also the guard took possesion of [a hacker's] handcuffs and asked what he needed them for and so on. At this point the guard asked for ID's from everyone. Most all people refused to comply with this order. At this time the guard called in to their dispatcher and their boss got on the radio and said that he was coming down to see what the 'hell is going on' with us. About two minutes later a gentleman in a suit arrived. Apparently he was the boss and he ordered the guards to get ID's.

"The guards used very coercive tactics to obtain ID's from threatening to call people's parents to calling the Arlington County police and having them force us to produce ID. They got ID's from most people, but some still refused to produce ID's. At this time a guard approached another person at the meeting and asked to search his bag too. This person gave consent to search the bag and the guard discovered a [not stolen] credit card verification machine. At this point the guards radioed in to call the Arlington County Police. About 10 minutes later the police arrived, demanded, and got ID's from the remaining holdouts and the mall security quickly wrote down all pertinent information from telephone numbers to social security numbers to date of births and addresses.

"The guards at no time disclosed what would be done with the information and responded that it was 'none of your business' when I inquired about it. When I asked about the illegal searches they were conducting they stated that they were within their rights because it was private property and they could do 'whatever we want, and you'll play by our rules or we'll arrest you.' Arrest me for what I haven't a clue. I asked why they seized the papers and electronic equipment from the bags and they said that it was 'evidence' and could be retrieved when they want us to get it. A wireless telephone bug was seized from my person.... I told them that it was a wireless intercom modification for a phone. When they said that they would keep it until Monday I pressed the issue that they were not entitled to it and I would take it now whether they liked it or not. At this time the guy in the suit said, 'Bring it here and let me look at it.' In his infinite electronics wisdom [he] concluded that it would be OK for me to have it.

"During the entire episode a rather large crowd had gathered in the mall, including several people who other hackers identified as Secret Service agents. I cannot confirm this however. Most of the hackers who arrived late were not allowed into the scene but many observed the officers with cameras and some had their film taken and were handled in a very beligerrent manner by the mall cops."

What It Was All About

The actions of the mall police were outrageous in the eyes of most. But if this were simply another entry in a list of stupid things that mall cops have done, it wouldn't really have much significance. And, as many of us already know, this was indeed a most significant event. Bright and early on Monday, Brock Meeks, a reporter for Communications Daily, called the mall police and spoke with Al Johnson, director of Security for the Pentagon City Mall. They had the following conversation:

Meeks: I'd like to ask you a few questions about an incident where some of your security guards broke up a meeting of some hackers on Friday (Nov. 6).

Al Johnson: They broke up some meeting of hackers?

Meeks: Yes.

Johnson: I don't know about breaking any meeting up. Who... first of all I can't talk to you on the phone, if you want to come in, I don't talk to the press on the phone.

Meeks: OK.

Johnson: Ahh... maybe you outta call the Secret Service, they're handling this whole thing. We, we were just here.

Meeks: The Secret Service was part of this?

Johnson: Well, FBI, Secret Service, everybody was here, so you might want to call their office and talk to them. There's not much I can really tell you here.

Meeks: OK.

Johnson: Our involvement was minimum, you know, minimal.

Meeks: I see, but your folks were acting on....

Johnson: We didn't break anything... I... we didn't... as far as I know, well I can't say much on the phone. But I, well, somebody's awfully paranoid apparently. Where'd you get this information from?

Meeks: Umm.... from computer bulletin boards.

Johnson: Bulletin boards?

Meeks: Yep.

Johnson: When did you get it?

Meeks: I got it, ah, Sunday night.

Johnson: Sunday night?

Meeks: Yep.

Johnson: [small laugh] Ah, yeah, you gotta call the FBI and the Secret Service. There's not much I can do for you here.

Meeks: Ok. Al, if I come down there will you talk to me down there?

Johnson: No. I can't talk to you at all. Fact is, there's nothing to talk about. Our involvement in anything was minimal, I don't know where this information came from as far as bulletin boards, and breaking meetings up and you know....

Meeks: Well, the Arlington police were down there too. I mean I've talked to several of the kids that were involved.

Johnson: Um-hmmm.

Meeks: They said, that ah, members of your, of the mall security forces, ah, or security staff, searched them, confiscated some material and didn't give it back. Did any of this happen?

Johnson: Like I said, I'm not, I'm not able to talk to you... we have a policy that we don't talk to the press about anything like that. You can call the Secret Service, call the FBI, they're the ones that ramrodded this whole thing, and you talk to them, we're out of this basically, you know, as far as I'm concerned here.

Meeks: Ok. Is there a contact person over there that you can....

Johnson: Ah... you know, I don't have a contact person. These people were working on their own, undercover, we never got any names, but they definitely, we saw identification, they were here.

Meeks: They were there. So it was all the Secret Service and none of your men?

Johnson: Ah, nah, that's not what I said. But they're the ones you want to talk to.

At the meeting, several attendees had overheard mention of Secret Service involvement by both the mall police and the Arlington police. Here, though, was clearcut indisputable evidence. And it was even captured on tape!

Calls by other reporters yielded a different response by Johnson, who started saying that there was no Secret Service involvement and that he had never said there was. He was unaware at the time that a tape recording of his comments existed. When this fact became clear, Al Johnson faded away from the public spotlight. The obvious conclusion to draw is that reporter Meeks got to Johnson before the Secret Service was able to. In fact, a couple of weeks later at a hacker court appearance in New York, a Secret Service agent would be overheard commenting on how badly they had screwed up in DC. Very few people failed to see the significance of this latest Secret Service action. Outrage was expressed in many different forums, over the Internet, on radio programs, over the phone, through the mail, and in independent media outlets. Mainstream media (as usual) missed the boat on this one. While the story did manage to make the front page of the Washington Post (November 13), the issue of Secret Service involvement in illegal searches and intimidation tactics wasn't gone into nearly enough. Rather, this seemed to be accepted as standard practice and what was unusual, and even cause for concern, was the fact that hackers actually mingle with the rest of America in shopping malls. It's probably not necessary for us to point out the dangers of accepting what the Secret Service did to us. Most of our readers know that accepting one atrocity is the best way of ensuring another. If we allow a small piece of our freedom to be taken away, the hunger pangs for another piece will be even stronger. That is why we will not tolerate such activities and that is why we have begun to fight back.

While a mall can technically be considered private property, in reality it is an area where the public gathers. In a large part of our country, malls have replaced town squares as places to meet and see your friends. We have trouble with, and don't intend to passively accept, policies which allow people to be removed from malls simply because of who they are. This is especially repugnant when the people are mall customers who aren't even being accused of anything!

We intend to continue to meet in such areas and will only stop when it becomes illegal for anybody to meet in such a place. Since we have meetings all over the country and have been meeting in New York for more than five years without incident, we don't really anticipate this to be a problem. In fact, we doubt we ever would have had a problem at the Pentagon City mall if the Secret Service hadn't "ramrodded" their way through.

At the December meeting, hackers from New York came to the Pentagon City mall to show support. A total of about 75 people came to this meeting, ranging from 12 year old kids to people who read about it in the Washington Post. The mall cops stayed away and there were no incidents (except that they threw out Brock Meeks for asking too many questions and for trying to track down Al Johnson). We don't anticipate any problems at future meetings here. The Pentagon City mall is a great place to get together and we intend to continue meeting there. We also estimate that our little group spent about $1000 in the food court alone.

We have a little saying at 2600 that seems to hold true for each time we get hassled or challenged. Every time we're attacked, we only get stronger. This latest incident is no exception. We've had more people from various parts of the country contact us wanting to start meetings in their cities. Attendance at the meetings has gone up. And people "outside the loop" are finally beginning to see that hackers are not criminals. After all, do criminals meet openly and welcome outsiders?

In addition, there is now the question of legality. Every legal expert we've spoken with tells us that these actions are clearly outside the boundaries of due process. Those responsible may only now be realizing the potential legal trouble they're in. It's very likely they thought that the hackers would be intimidated and wouldn't tell anybody what happened. Perhaps this train of thought works when the intimidated parties are criminals with something to hide. In this case, the hackers immediately got in touch with the New York 2600 meeting, the Washington Post, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Word of the harrassment swept across the nation within minutes. The authorities were not prepared for this. There just wasn't enough time for a cover-up and this is what did them in.

Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIAs) have already been filed with the Secret Service. This is the first of many legal steps that are now being contemplated. It's time we put a stop to this abuse of power and it's also time for the Secret Service to stop sneaking around shopping malls spying on teenagers and start getting back to something important.

For those of you interested in starting up meetings in your city, we ask that you contact us by phone at 516-751-2600. We don't have a whole lot of guidelines but we do ask that you use common sense. Pick an open setting with plenty of space and access to payphones. It's far preferable if the payphones can accept incoming calls. Unfortunately, you must be prepared for the kind of unpleasantness that took place in Washington DC. The mature and professional reaction of the DC hackers is what really made the difference in this case.

As far as what actually goes on at a 2600 meeting, there are no rules. Obviously, it's best if you don't cause any problems and don't do anything illegal. New people should be welcomed, regardless of their views or your suspicions. All kinds of information should be shared without fear. But most of all, meetings are for the purpose of getting hackers openly involved with the rest of the world so they can see for themselves what we're all about. Since it's obvious the media won't soon dispel the myths, it's really up to us now.