It now appears that such an endeavor may indeed be on the agendas of some very powerful U.S. governmental agencies. And even more frightening is the realization that these agencies don't particularly care who or what gets swept up along with the hackers, as long as all of the hackers get swept up. Apparently, we're considered even more of a threat than we had previously supposed.
In retrospect, this doesn't come as a great deal of a surprise. In fact, it now seems to make all too much sense. You no longer have to be paranoid or of a particular political mindset to point to the many parallels that we've all been witnesses to. Censorship, clampdowns, "voluntary" urine tests, lie detectors, handwriting analysis, surveillance cameras, exaggerated crises that invariably lead to curtailed freedoms.... All of this together with the overall view that if you're innocent, you've got nothing to hide. And all made so much more effective through the magic of high tech. Who would you target as the biggest potential roadblock if not the people who understand the technology at work? It appears the biggest threats to the system are those capable of manipulating it.
What we're about to tell you is frightening, plain and simple. You don't have to be a hacker to understand this. The words and ideas are easily translatable to any time and any culture.
"We can now expect a crackdown...I just hope that I can pull through this one and that my friends can also. This is the time to watch yourself. No matter what you are into.... Apparently the government has seen the last straw in their point of view.... I think they are going after all the 'teachers'...and so that is where their energies will be put: to stop all hackers, and stop people before they can become threats."
This was one of the reactions on a computer bulletin board to a series of raids on hackers, raids that had started in 1989 and spread rapidly into early 1990. Atlanta, St. Louis, and New York were major targets in what was then an undetermined investigation.
This in itself wouldn't have been especially alarming, since raids on hackers can almost be defined as commonplace. But this one was different. For the very first time, a hacker newsletter had also been shut down.
Phrack was an electronic newsletter published out of St. Louis and distributed worldwide. It dealt with hacker and phone phreak matters and could be found on nearly all hacker bulletin boards. While dealing with sensitive material, the editors were very careful not to publish anything illegal (credit card numbers, passwords, Sprint codes, etc.). We described "Phrack World News" (a regular column of Phrack) in our Summer 1989 edition as "a must-read for many hackers". In many ways Phrack resembled 2600, with the exception of being sent via electronic mail instead of U.S. Mail. That distinction would prove to be Phrack's undoing.
It now turns out that all incoming and outgoing electronic mail used by Phrack was being monitored by the authorities. Every piece of mail going in and every piece of mail coming out. These were not pirated mailboxes that were being used by a couple of hackers. These had been obtained legally through the school the two Phrack editors were attending. Privacy on such mailboxes, though not guaranteed, could always be assumed. Never again.
It's fairly obvious that none of this would have happened, none of this could have happened had Phrack been a non-electronic magazine. A printed magazine would not be intimidated into giving up its mailing list as Phrack was. Had a printed magazine been shut down in this fashion after having all of their mail opened and read, even the most thick-headed sensationalist media types would have caught on: hey, isn't that a violation of the First Amendment?
Those media people who understood what was happening and saw the implications were very quickly drowned out in the hysteria that followed. Indictments were being handed out. Publisher/editor Craig Neidorf, known in the hacker world as Knight Lightning, was hit with a seven count indictment accusing him of participating in a scheme to steal information about the enhanced 911 system run by Bell South. Quickly, headlines screamed that hackers had broken into the 911 system and were interfering with emergency telephone calls to the police. One newspaper report said there were no indications that anyone had died or been injured as a result of the intrusions. What a relief. Too bad it wasn't true.
In actuality there have been very grievous injuries suffered as a result of these intrusions. The intrusions we're referring to are those of the government and the media. The injuries have been suffered by the defendants who will have great difficulty resuming normal lives even if all of this is forgotten tomorrow.
And if it's not forgotten, Craig Neidorf could go to jail for more than 30 years and be fined $122,000. And for what? Let's look at the indictment:
"It was... part of the scheme that defendant Neidorf, utilizing a computer at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri would and did receive a copy of the stolen E911 text file from defendant [Robert J.] Riggs [located in Atlanta and known in the hacker world as Prophet] through the Lockport [Illinois] computer bulletin board system through the use of an interstate computer data network.
"It was further part of the scheme that defendant Neidorf would and did edit and retype the E911 Practice text file at the request of the defendant Riggs in order to conceal the source of the E911 Practice text file and to prepare it for publication in a computer hacker newsletter.
"It was further part of the scheme that defendant Neidorf would and did transfer the stolen E911 Practice text file through the use of an interstate computer bulletin board system used by defendant Riggs in Lockport, Illinois.
"It was further part of the scheme that the defendants Riggs and Neidorf would publish information to other computer hackers which could be used to gain unauthorized access to emergency 911 computer systems in the United States and thereby disrupt or halt 911 service in portions of the United States."
Basically, Neidorf is being charged with receiving a stolen document. There is nothing anywhere in the indictment that even suggests he entered any computer illegally. So his crimes are receiving, editing, and transmitting.
Now what is contained in this document? Information about how to gain unauthorized access to, disrupt, or halt 911 service? Hardly. The document (erroneously referred to as "911 software" by the media which caused all kinds of misunderstandings) is quoted in Phrack Volume 2, Number 24 and makes for one of the dullest articles ever to appear in the newsletter. According to the indictment, the value of this 20k document is $79,449.
Shortly after the indictments were handed down, a member of the Legion of Doom known as Erik Bloodaxe issued a public statement. "[A group of three hackers] ended up pulling files off [a Southern Bell system] for them to look at. This is usually standard procedure: you get on a system, look around for interesting text, buffer it, and maybe print it out for posterity. No member of LOD has ever (to my knowledge) broken into another system and used any information gained from it for personal gain of any kind...with the exception of maybe a big boost in his reputation around the underground. [A hacker] took the documentation to the system and wrote a file about it. There are actually two files, one is an overview, the other is a glossary. The information is hardly something anyone could possibly gain anything from except knowledge about how a certain aspect of the telephone company works."
He went on to say that Neidorf would have had no way of knowing whether or not the file contained proprietary information.
Prosecutors refused to say how hackers could benefit from the information, nor would they cite a motive or reveal any actual damage. In addition, it's widely speculated that much of this information is readily available as reference material.
In all of the indictments, the Legion of Doom is defined as "a closely knit group of computer hackers involved in: a) disrupting telecommunications by entering computerized telephone switches and changing the routing on the circuits of the computerized switches; b) stealing proprietary computer source code and information from companies and individuals that owned the code and information; c) stealing and modifying credit information on individuals maintained in credit bureau computers; d) fraudulently obtaining money and property from companies by altering the computerized information used by the companies; e) disseminating information with respect to their methods of attacking computers to other computer hackers in an effort to avoid the focus of law enforcement agencies and telecommunication security experts."
Ironically, since the Legion of Doom isn't a closely knit group, it's unlikely that anyone will be able to defend the group's name against these charges - any defendants will naturally be preoccupied with their own defenses. (Incidentally, Neidorf was not a part of the Legion of Doom, nor was Phrack a publication of LOD, as has been reported.)
After learning of the Phrack electronic mail surveillance, one of the system operators of The Phoenix Project, a computer bulletin board in Austin, Texas, decided to take action to protect the privacy of his users. "I will be adding a secure encryption routine into the e-mail in the next 2 weeks - I haven't decided exactly how to implement it, but it'll let two people exchange mail encrypted by a password only known to the two of them.... Anyway, I do not think I am due to be busted...I don't do anything but run a board. Still, there is that possibility. I assume that my lines are all tapped until proven otherwise. There is some question to the wisdom of leaving the board up at all, but I have personally phoned several government investigators and invited them to join us here on the board. If I begin to feel that the board is putting me in any kind of danger, I'll pull it down with no notice - I hope everyone understands. It looks like it's sweeps-time again for the feds. Let's hope all of us are still around in 6 months to talk about it."
The new security was never implemented. The Phoenix Project was seized within days.
And the clampdown intensified still further. On March 1, the offices of Steve Jackson Games, a publishing company in Austin, were raided by the Secret Service. According to the Associated Press, the home of the managing editor was also searched. The police and Secret Service seized books, manuals, computers, technical equipment, and other documents. Agents also seized the final draft of a science fiction game written by the company. According to the Austin American-Statesman, the authorities were trying to determine whether the game was being used as a handbook for computer crime.
Callers to the Illuminati bulletin board (run by Steve Jackson Games), received the following message:
"Before the start of work on March 1, Steve Jackson Games was visited by agents of the United States Secret Service. They searched the building thoroughly, tore open several boxes in the warehouse, broke a few locks, and damaged a couple of filing cabinets (which we would gladly have let them examine, had they let us into the building), answered the phone discourteously at best, and confiscated some computer equipment, including the computer that the BBS was running on at the time.
"So far we have not received a clear explanation of what the Secret Service was looking for, what they expected to find, or much of anything else. We are fairly certain that Steve Jackson Games is not the target of whatever investigation is being conducted; in any case, we have done nothing illegal and have nothing whatsoever to hide. However, the equipment that was seized is apparently considered to be evidence in whatever they're investigating, so we aren't likely to get it back any time soon. It could be a month, it could be never.
"To minimize the possibility that this system will be confiscated as well, we have set it up to display this bulletin, and that's all. There is no message base at present. We apologize for the inconvenience, and we wish we dared do more than this."
Apparently, one of the system operators of The Phoenix Project was also affiliated with Steve Jackson Games. And that was all the authorities needed.
Raids continued throughout the country with reports of more than a dozen bulletin boards being shut down. In Atlanta, the papers reported that three local LOD hackers faced 40 years in prison and a $2 million fine.
Another statement from a Legion of Doom member (The Mentor, also a system operator of The Phoenix Project) attempted to explain the situation:
"LOD was formed to bring together the best minds from the computer underground - not to do any damage or for personal profit, but to share experiences and discuss computing. The group has always maintained the highest ethical standards.... On many occasions, we have acted to prevent abuse of systems.... I have known the people involved in this 911 case for many years, and there was absolutely no intent to interfere with or molest the 911 system in any manner. While we have occasionally entered a computer that we weren't supposed to be in, it is grounds for expulsion from the group and social ostracism to do any damage to a system or to attempt to commit fraud for personal profit.
"The biggest crime that has been committed is that of curiosity.... We have been instrumental in closing many security holes in the past, and had hoped to continue to do so in the future. The list of computer security people who count us as allies is long, but must remain anonymous. If any of them choose to identify themselves, we would appreciate the support."
Meanwhile, in Lockport, Illinois, a strange tale was unfolding. The public UNIX system known as Jolnet that had been used to transmit the 911 files had also been seized. What's particularly odd here is that, according to the electronic newsletter Telecom Digest, the system operator, Rich Andrews, had been cooperating with federal authorities for over a year. Andrews found the files on his system nearly two years ago, forwarded them to AT&T, and was subsequently contacted by the authorities. He cooperated fully. Why, then, was his system seized as well? Andrews claimed it was all part of the investigation, but added, "One way to get [hackers] is by shutting down the sites they use to distribute stuff."
The Jolnet raid caused outrage in the bulletin board world, particularly among administrators and users of public UNIX systems.
Cliff Figallo, system administrator for The Well, a public UNIX system in California, voiced his concern. "The assumption that federal agents can seize a system owner's equipment as evidence in spite of the owner's lack of proven involvement in the alleged illegal activities (and regardless of the possibility that the system is part of the owner's livelihood) is scary to me and should be to anyone responsible for running a system such as this."
Here is a sampling of some of the comments seen around the country after the Jolnet seizure:
"As administrator for Zygot, should I start reading my users' mail to make sure they aren't saying anything naughty? Should I snoop through all the files to make sure everyone is being good? This whole affair is rather chilling."
"From what I have noted with respect to Jolnet, there was a serious crime committed there - by the [federal authorities]. If they busted a system with email on it, the Electronic Communication Privacy Act comes into play. Everyone who had email dated less than 180 days old on the system is entitled to sue each of the people involved in the seizure for at least $1,000 plus legal fees and court costs. Unless, of course, the [authorities] did it by the book, and got warrants to interfere with the email of all who had accounts on the systems. If they did, there are strict limits on how long they have to inform the users."
"Intimidation, threats, disruption of work and school, "hit lists", and serious legal charges are all part of the tactics being used in this "witch-hunt". That ought to indicate that perhaps the use of pseudonyms wasn't such a bad idea after all."
"There are civil rights and civil liberties issues here that have yet to be addressed. And they probably won't even be raised so long as everyone acts on the assumption that all hackers are criminals and vandals and need to be squashed, at whatever cost...."
"I am disturbed, on principle, at the conduct of at least some of the federal investigations now going on. I know several people who've taken their systems out of public access just because they can't risk the seizure of their equipment (as evidence or for any other reason). If you're a Usenet site, you may receive megabytes of new data every day, but you have no common carrier protection in the event that someone puts illegal information onto the Net and thence into your system."
But despite the outpourings of concern for what had happened, many system administrators and bulletin board operators felt compelled to tighten the control of their systems and to make free speech a little more difficult, for their own protection.
Bill Kuykendall, system administrator for The Point, a public UNIX system in Chicago, made the following announcement to the users of his system:
"Today, there is no law or precedent which affords me... the same legal rights that other common carriers have against prosecution should some other party (you) use my property (The Point) for illegal activities. That worries me....
"I fully intend to explore the legal questions raised here. In my opinion, the rights to free assembly and free speech would be threatened if the owners of public meeting places were charged with the responsibility of policing all conversations held in the hallways and lavatories of their facilities for references to illegal activities.
"Under such laws, all privately owned meeting places would be forced out of existence, and the right to meet and speak freely would vanish with them. The common sense of this reasoning has not yet been applied to electronic meeting places by the legislature. This issue must be forced, or electronic bulletin boards will cease to exist.
"In the meantime, I intend to continue to operate The Point with as little risk to myself as possible. Therefore, I am implementing a few new policies:
"No user will be allowed to post any message, public or private, until his name and address has been adequately verified. Most users in the metropolitan Chicago area have already been validated through the telephone number directory service provided by Illinois Bell. Those of you who received validation notices stating that your information had not been checked due to a lack of time on my part will now have to wait until I get time before being allowed to post.
"Out of state addresses cannot be validated in the manner above.... The short term solution for users outside the Chicago area is to find a system closer to home than The Point.
"Some of the planned enhancements to The Point are simply not going to happen until the legal issues are resolved. There will be no shell access and no file upload/download facility for now.
"My apologies to all who feel inconvenienced by these policies, but under the circumstances, I think your complaints would be most effective if made to your state and federal legislators. Please do so!"
These restrictions were echoed on other large systems, while a number of smaller hacker bulletin boards disappeared altogether. We've been told by some in the hacker world that this is only a phase, that the hacker boards will be back and that users will once again be able to speak without having their words and identities "registered". But there's also a nagging suspicion, the feeling that something is very different now. A publication has been shut down. Hundreds, if not thousands, of names have been seized from mailing lists and will, no doubt, be investigated. The facts in the 911 story have been twisted and misrepresented beyond recognition, thanks to ignorance and sensationalism. People and organizations that have had contact with any of the suspects are open to investigation themselves. And, around the country, computer operators and users are becoming more paranoid and less willing to allow free speech. In the face of all of this, the belief that democracy will triumph in the end seems hopelessly naive. Yet, it's something we dare not stop believing in. Mere faith in the system, however, is not enough.
We hope that someday we'll be able to laugh at the absurdities of today. But, for now, let's concentrate on the facts and make sure they stay in the forefront.
Were there break-ins involving the E911 system? If so, the entire story must be revealed. How did the hackers get in? What did they have access to? What could they have done? What did they actually do? Any security holes that were revealed should already have been closed. If there are more, why do they still exist? Could the original holes have been closed earlier and, if so, why weren't they? Any hacker who caused damage to the system should be held accountable. Period. Almost every hacker around seems to agree with this. So what is the problem? The glaring fact that there doesn't appear to have been any actual damage. Just the usual assortment of gaping security holes that never seem to get fixed. Shoddiness in design is something that shouldn't be overlooked in a system as important as E911. Yet that aspect of the case is being side-stepped. Putting the blame on the hackers for finding the flaws is another way of saying the flaws should remain undetected.
Under no circumstance should the Phrack newsletter or any of its editors be held as criminals for printing material leaked to them. Every publication of any value has had documents given to them that were not originally intended for public consumption. That's how news stories are made. Shutting down Phrack sends a very ominous message to publishers and editors across the nation.
Finally, the privacy of computer users must be respected by the government. It's ironic that hackers are portrayed as the ones who break into systems, read private mail, and screw up innocent people. Yet it's the federal authorities who seem to have carte blanche in that department. Just what did the Secret Service do on these computer systems? What did they gain access to? Whose mail did they read? And what allowed them to do this?
It's very easy to throw up your hands and say it's all too much. But the facts indicate to us that we've come face to face with a very critical moment in history. What comes out of this could be a trend-setting precedent, not only for computer users, but for the free press and every citizen of the United States. Complacency at this stage will be most detrimental.
We also realize that one of the quickest ways of losing credibility is to be shrill and conspiracy-minded. We hope we're not coming across in this way because we truly believe there is a significant threat here. If Phrack is successfully shut down and its editors sent to prison for writing an article, 2600 could easily be next. And so could scores of other publications whose existence ruffles some feathers. We cannot allow this to happen.
In the past, we've called for people to spread the word on various issues. More times than not, the results have been felt. Never has it been more important than now. To be silent at this stage is to accept a very grim and dark future.