Part 3.1: Law and Order
Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier by Bruce Sterling

« previous chapter contents next chapter »

Warp to section one, section two, section three, section four, section five, section six, section seven or section eight.

Of the various anti-hacker activities of 1990, "Operation Sundevil" had by far the highest public profile. The sweeping, nationwide computer seizures of May 8, 1990 were unprecedented in scope and highly, if rather selectively, publicized.

Unlike the efforts of the Chicago Computer Fraud and Abuse Task Force, "Operation Sundevil" was not intended to combat "hacking" in the sense of computer intrusion or sophisticated raids on telco switching stations. Nor did it have anything to do with hacker misdeeds with AT&T's software, or with Southern Bell's proprietary documents.

Instead, "Operation Sundevil" was a crackdown on those traditional scourges of the digital underground: credit card theft and telephone code abuse. The ambitious activities out of Chicago, and the somewhat lesser-known but vigorous antihacker actions of the New York State Police in 1990, were never a part of "Operation Sundevil" per se, which was based in Arizona.

Nevertheless, after the spectacular May 8 raids, the public, misled by police secrecy, hacker panic, and a puzzled national press-corps, conflated all aspects of the nationwide crackdown in 1990 under the blanket term "Operation Sundevil." "Sundevil" is still the best-known synonym for the crackdown of 1990. But the Arizona organizers of "Sundevil" did not really deserve this reputation - any more, for instance, than all hackers deserve a reputation as "hackers."

There was some justice in this confused perception, though. For one thing, the confusion was abetted by the Washington office of the Secret Service, who responded to Freedom of Information Act requests on "Operation Sundevil" by referring investigators to the publicly known cases of Knight Lightning and the Atlanta Three. And "Sundevil" was certainly the largest aspect of the Crackdown, the most deliberate and the best-organized. As a crackdown on electronic fraud, "Sundevil" lacked the frantic pace of the war on the Legion of Doom; on the contrary, Sundevil's targets were picked out with cool deliberation over an elaborate investigation lasting two full years.

And once again the targets were bulletin board systems.

Boards can be powerful aids to organized fraud. Underground boards carry lively, extensive, detailed, and often quite flagrant "discussions" of lawbreaking techniques and lawbreaking activities. "Discussing" crime in the abstract, or "discussing" the particulars of criminal cases, is not illegal - but there are stern state and federal laws against coldbloodedly conspiring in groups in order to commit crimes.

In the eyes of police, people who actively conspire to break the law are not regarded as "clubs," "debating salons," "users' groups," or "free speech advocates." Rather, such people tend to find themselves formally indicted by prosecutors as "gangs," "racketeers," "corrupt organizations" and "organized crime figures."

What's more, the illicit data contained on outlaw boards goes well beyond mere acts of speech and/or possible criminal conspiracy. As we have seen, it was common practice in the digital underground to post purloined telephone codes on boards, for any phreak or hacker who cared to abuse them. Is posting digital booty of this sort supposed to be protected by the First Amendment? Hardly - though the issue, like most issues in cyberspace, is not entirely resolved. Some theorists argue that to merely recite a number publicly is not illegal - only its use is illegal. But anti-hacker police point out that magazines and newspapers (more traditional forms of free expression) never publish stolen telephone codes (even though this might well raise their circulation).

Stolen credit card numbers, being riskier and more valuable, were less often publicly posted on boards - but there is no question that some underground boards carried "carding" traffic, generally exchanged through private mail.

Underground boards also carried handy programs for "scanning" telephone codes and raiding credit card companies, as well as the usual obnoxious galaxy of pirated software, cracked passwords, blue-box schematics, intrusion manuals, anarchy files, porn files, and so forth.

But besides their nuisance potential for the spread of illicit knowledge, bulletin boards have another vitally interesting aspect for the professional investigator. Bulletin boards are cram-full of evidence. All that busy trading of electronic mail, all those hacker boasts, brags and struts, even the stolen codes and cards, can be neat, electronic, realtime recordings of criminal activity. As an investigator, when you seize a pirate board, you have scored a coup as effective as tapping phones or intercepting mail. However, you have not actually tapped a phone or intercepted a letter. The rules of evidence regarding phone-taps and mail interceptions are old, stern and well understood by police, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike. The rules of evidence regarding boards are new, waffling, and understood by nobody at all.

Sundevil was the largest crackdown on boards in world history. On May 7, 8, and 9, 1990, about forty-two computer systems were seized. Of those forty-two computers, about twenty-five actually were running boards. (The vagueness of this estimate is attributable to the vagueness of (a) what a "computer system" is, and (b) what it actually means to "run a board" with one - or with two computers, or with three.)

About twenty-five boards vanished into police custody in May 1990. As we have seen, there are an estimated 30,000 boards in America today. If we assume that one board in a hundred is up to no good with codes and cards (which rather flatters the honesty of the board-using community), then that would leave 2,975 outlaw boards untouched by Sundevil. Sundevil seized about one tenth of one percent of all computer bulletin boards in America. Seen objectively, this is something less than a comprehensive assault. In 1990, Sundevil's organizers - the team at the Phoenix Secret Service office, and the Arizona Attorney General's office - had a list of at least three hundred boards that they considered fully deserving of search and seizure warrants. The twenty-five boards actually seized were merely among the most obvious and egregious of this much larger list of candidates. All these boards had been examined beforehand - either by informants, who had passed printouts to the Secret Service, or by Secret Service agents themselves, who not only come equipped with modems but know how to use them.

There were a number of motives for Sundevil. First, it offered a chance to get ahead of the curve on wire-fraud crimes. Tracking back credit card rip-offs to their perpetrators can be appallingly difficult. If these miscreants have any kind of electronic sophistication, they can snarl their tracks through the phone network into a mind-boggling, untraceable mess, while still managing to "reach out and rob someone." Boards, however, full of brags and boasts, codes and cards, offer evidence in the handy congealed form.

Seizures themselves - the mere physical removal of machines - tends to take the pressure off. During Sundevil, a large number of code kids, warez d00dz, and credit card thieves would be deprived of those boards - their means of community and conspiracy - in one swift blow. As for the sysops themselves (commonly among the boldest offenders) they would be directly stripped of their computer equipment, and rendered digitally mute and blind.

And this aspect of Sundevil was carried out with great success. Sundevil seems to have been a complete tactical surprise - unlike the fragmentary and continuing seizures of the war on the Legion of Doom, Sundevil was precisely timed and utterly overwhelming. At least forty "computers" were seized during May 7, 8 and 9, 1990, in Cincinnati, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, Phoenix, Tucson, Richmond, San Diego, San Jose, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Some cities saw multiple raids, such as the five separate raids in the New York City environs. Plano, Texas (essentially a suburb of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, and a hub of the telecommunications industry) saw four computer seizures. Chicago, ever in the forefront, saw its own local Sundevil raid, briskly carried out by Secret Service agents Timothy Foley and Barbara Golden.

Many of these raids occurred, not in the cities proper, but in associated white-middle class suburbs - places like Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania and Clark Lake, Michigan. There were a few raids on offices; most took place in people's homes, the classic hacker basements and bedrooms.

The Sundevil raids were searches and seizures, not a group of mass arrests. There were only four arrests during Sundevil. "Tony the Trashman," a longtime teenage bete noire of the Arizona Racketeering unit, was arrested in Tucson on May 9. "Dr. Ripco," sysop of an outlaw board with the misfortune to exist in Chicago itself, was also arrested - on illegal weapons charges. Local units also arrested a 19-year-old female phone phreak named "Electra" in Pennsylvania, and a male juvenile in California. Federal agents however were not seeking arrests, but computers.

Hackers are generally not indicted (if at all) until the evidence in their seized computers is evaluated - a process that can take weeks, months - even years. When hackers are arrested on the spot, it's generally an arrest for other reasons. Drugs and/or illegal weapons show up in a good third of anti-hacker computer seizures (though not during Sundevil). That scofflaw teenage hackers (or their parents) should have marijuana in their homes is probably not a shocking revelation, but the surprisingly common presence of illegal firearms in hacker dens is a bit disquieting. A Personal Computer can be a great equalizer for the techno-cowboy - much like that more traditional American "Great Equalizer," the Personal Sixgun. Maybe it's not all that surprising that some guy obsessed with power through illicit technology would also have a few illicit high-velocity-impact devices around. An element of the digital underground particularly dotes on those "anarchy philes," and this element tends to shade into the crackpot milieu of survivalists, gun-nuts, anarcho-leftists and the ultra-libertarian right-wing.

This is not to say that hacker raids to date have uncovered any major crack-dens or illegal arsenals; but Secret Service agents do not regard "hackers" as "just kids." They regard hackers as unpredictable people, bright and slippery. It doesn't help matters that the hacker himself has been "hiding behind his keyboard" all this time. Commonly, police have no idea what he looks like. This makes him an unknown quantity, someone best treated with proper caution.

To date, no hacker has come out shooting, though they do sometimes brag on boards that they will do just that. Threats of this sort are taken seriously. Secret Service hacker raids tend to be swift, comprehensive, well-manned (even overmanned); and agents generally burst through every door in the home at once, sometimes with drawn guns. Any potential resistance is swiftly quelled. Hacker raids are usually raids on people's homes. It can be a very dangerous business to raid an American home; people can panic when strangers invade their sanctum. Statistically speaking, the most dangerous thing a policeman can do is to enter someone's home. (The second most dangerous thing is to stop a car in traffic.) People have guns in their homes. More cops are hurt in homes than are ever hurt in biker bars or massage parlors.

But in any case, no one was hurt during Sundevil, or indeed during any part of the Hacker Crackdown.

Nor were there any allegations of any physical mistreatment of a suspect. Guns were pointed, interrogations were sharp and prolonged; but no one in 1990 claimed any act of brutality by any crackdown raider.

In addition to the forty or so computers, Sundevil reaped floppy disks in particularly great abundance - an estimated 23,000 of them, which naturally included every manner of illegitimate data: pirated games, stolen codes, hot credit card numbers, the complete text and software of entire pirate bulletin-boards. These floppy disks, which remain in police custody today, offer a gigantic, almost embarrassingly rich source of possible criminal indictments. These 23,000 floppy disks also include a thus-far unknown quantity of legitimate computer games, legitimate software, purportedly "private" mail from boards, business records, and personal correspondence of all kinds.

Standard computer crime search warrants lay great emphasis on seizing written documents as well as computers - specifically including photocopies, computer printouts, telephone bills, address books, logs, notes, memoranda and correspondence. In practice, this has meant that diaries, gaming magazines, software documentation, nonfiction books on hacking and computer security, sometimes even science fiction novels, have all vanished out the door in police custody. A wide variety of electronic items have been known to vanish as well, including telephones, televisions, answering machines, Sony Walkmans, desktop printers, compact disks, and audiotapes.

No fewer than 150 members of the Secret Service were sent into the field during Sundevil. They were commonly accompanied by squads of local and/or state police. Most of these officers - especially the locals - had never been on an anti-hacker raid before. (This was one good reason, in fact, why so many of them were invited along in the first place.) Also, the presence of a uniformed police officer assures the raidees that the people entering their homes are, in fact, police. Secret Service agents wear plain clothes. So do the telco security experts who commonly accompany the Secret Service on raids (and who make no particular effort to identify themselves as mere employees of telephone companies).

A typical hacker raid goes something like this. First, police storm in rapidly, through every entrance, with overwhelming force, in the assumption that this tactic will keep casualties to a minimum. Second, possible suspects are immediately removed from the vicinity of any and all computer systems, so that they will have no chance to purge or destroy computer evidence. Suspects are herded into a room without computers, commonly the living room, and kept under guard - not armed guard, for the guns are swiftly holstered, but under guard nevertheless. They are presented with the search warrant and warned that anything they say may be held against them. Commonly they have a great deal to say, especially if they are unsuspecting parents.

Somewhere in the house is the "hot spot" - a computer tied to a phone line (possibly several computers and several phones). Commonly it's a teenager's bedroom, but it can be anywhere in the house; there may be several such rooms. This "hot spot" is put in charge of a two-agent team, the "finder" and the "recorder." The "finder" is computer-trained, commonly the case agent who has actually obtained the search warrant from a judge. He or she understands what is being sought, and actually carries out the seizures: unplugs machines, opens drawers, desks, files, floppy-disk containers, etc. The "recorder" photographs all the equipment, just as it stands - especially the tangle of wired connections in the back, which can otherwise be a real nightmare to restore. The recorder will also commonly photograph every room in the house, lest some wily criminal claim that the police had robbed him during the search. Some recorders carry videocams or tape recorders; however, it's more common for the recorder to simply take written notes. Objects are described and numbered as the finder seizes them, generally on standard preprinted police inventory forms.

Even Secret Service agents were not, and are not, expert computer users. They have not made, and do not make, judgements on the fly about potential threats posed by various forms of equipment. They may exercise discretion; they may leave Dad his computer, for instance, but they don't have to. Standard computer crime search warrants, which date back to the early 80s, use a sweeping language that targets computers, most anything attached to a computer, most anything used to operate a computer - most anything that remotely resembles a computer - plus most any and all written documents surrounding it. Computer crime investigators have strongly urged agents to seize the works.

In this sense, Operation Sundevil appears to have been a complete success. Boards went down all over America, and were shipped en masse to the computer investigation lab of the Secret Service, in Washington DC, along with the 23,000 floppy disks and unknown quantities of printed material.

But the seizure of twenty-five boards, and the multi-megabyte mountains of possibly useful evidence contained in these boards (and in their owners' other computers, also out the door), were far from the only motives for Operation Sundevil. An unprecedented action of great ambition and size, Sundevil's motives can only be described as political. It was a public-relations effort, meant to pass certain messages, meant to make certain situations clear: both in the mind of the general public, and in the minds of various constituencies of the electronic community.

First - and this motivation was vital - a "message" would be sent from law enforcement to the digital underground. This very message was recited in so many words by Garry M. Jenkins, the Assistant Director of the US Secret Service, at the Sundevil press conference in Phoenix on May 9, 1990, immediately after the raids. In brief, hackers were mistaken in their foolish belief that they could hide behind the "relative anonymity of their computer terminals." On the contrary, they should fully understand that state and federal cops were actively patrolling the beat in cyberspace - that they were on the watch everywhere, even in those sleazy and secretive dens of cybernetic vice, the underground boards.

This is not an unusual message for police to publicly convey to crooks. The message is a standard message; only the context is new. In this respect, the Sundevil raids were the digital equivalent of the standard vice-squad crackdown on massage parlors, porno bookstores, head-shops, or floating crap-games. There may be few or no arrests in a raid of this sort; no convictions, no trials, no interrogations. In cases of this sort, police may well walk out the door with many pounds of sleazy magazines, X-rated videotapes, sex toys, gambling equipment, baggies of marijuana...

Of course, if something truly horrendous is discovered by the raiders, there will be arrests and prosecutions. Far more likely, however, there will simply be a brief but sharp disruption of the closed and secretive world of the nogoodniks. There will be "street hassle." "Heat." "Deterrence." And, of course, the immediate loss of the seized goods. It is very unlikely that any of this seized material will ever be returned. Whether charged or not, whether convicted or not, the perpetrators will almost surely lack the nerve ever to ask for this stuff to be given back.

Arrests and trials - putting people in jail - may involve all kinds of formal legalities; but dealing with the justice system is far from the only task of police. Police do not simply arrest people. They don't simply put people in jail. That is not how the police perceive their jobs. Police "protect and serve." Police "keep the peace," they "keep public order." Like other forms of public relations, keeping public order is not an exact science. Keeping public order is something of an art-form.

If a group of tough-looking teenage hoodlums was loitering on a street-corner, no one would be surprised to see a street-cop arrive and sternly order them to "break it up." On the contrary, the surprise would come if one of these ne'er-do-wells stepped briskly into a phone-booth, called a civil rights lawyer, and instituted a civil suit in defense of his Constitutional rights of free speech and free assembly. But something much along this line was one of the many anomalous outcomes of the Hacker Crackdown.

Sundevil also carried useful "messages" for other constituents of the electronic community. These messages may not have been read aloud from the Phoenix podium in front of the press corps, but there was little mistaking their meaning. There was a message of reassurance for the primary victims of coding and carding: the telcos, and the credit companies. Sundevil was greeted with joy by the security officers of the electronic business community. After years of high-tech harassment and spiralling revenue losses, their complaints of rampant outlawry were being taken seriously by law enforcement. No more head-scratching or dismissive shrugs; no more feeble excuses about "lack of computer-trained officers" or the low priority of "victimless" white-collar telecommunication crimes.

Computer crime experts have long believed that computer-related offenses are drastically under-reported. They regard this as a major open scandal of their field. Some victims are reluctant to come forth, because they believe that police and prosecutors are not computer-literate, and can and will do nothing. Others are embarrassed by their vulnerabilities, and will take strong measures to avoid any publicity; this is especially true of banks, who fear a loss of investor confidence should an embezzlement-case or wire-fraud surface. And some victims are so helplessly confused by their own high technology that they never even realize that a crime has occurred - even when they have been fleeced to the bone.

The results of this situation can be dire. Criminals escape apprehension and punishment. The computer crime units that do exist, can't get work. The true scope of computer crime: its size, its real nature, the scope of its threats, and the legal remedies for it - all remain obscured. Another problem is very little publicized, but it is a cause of genuine concern. Where there is persistent crime, but no effective police protection, then vigilantism can result. Telcos, banks, credit companies, the major corporations who maintain extensive computer networks vulnerable to hacking - these organizations are powerful, wealthy, and politically influential. They are disinclined to be pushed around by crooks (or by most anyone else, for that matter). They often maintain well-organized private security forces, commonly run by experienced veterans of military and police units, who have left public service for the greener pastures of the private sector. For police, the corporate security manager can be a powerful ally; but if this gentleman finds no allies in the police, and the pressure is on from his board-of-directors, he may quietly take certain matters into his own hands.

Nor is there any lack of disposable hired-help in the corporate security business. Private security agencies - the `security business' generally - grew explosively in the 1980s. Today there are spooky gumshoed armies of "security consultants," "rent-a-cops," "private eyes," "outside experts" - every manner of shady operator who retails in "results" and discretion. Of course, many of these gentlemen and ladies may be paragons of professional and moral rectitude. But as anyone who has read a hard-boiled detective novel knows, police tend to be less than fond of this sort of private-sector competition.

Companies in search of computer-security have even been known to hire hackers. Police shudder at this prospect.

Police treasure good relations with the business community. Rarely will you see a policeman so indiscreet as to allege publicly that some major employer in his state or city has succumbed to paranoia and gone off the rails. Nevertheless, police - and computer police in particular - are aware of this possibility. computer crime police can and do spend up to half of their business hours just doing public relations: seminars, "dog and pony shows," sometimes with parents' groups or computer users, but generally with their core audience: the likely victims of hacking crimes. These, of course, are telcos, credit card companies and large computerequipped corporations. The police strongly urge these people, as good citizens, to report offenses and press criminal charges; they pass the message that there is someone in authority who cares, understands, and, best of all, will take useful action should a computer crime occur. But reassuring talk is cheap. Sundevil offered action.

The final message of Sundevil was intended for internal consumption by law enforcement. Sundevil was offered as proof that the community of American computer crime police had come of age. Sundevil was proof that enormous things like Sundevil itself could now be accomplished. Sundevil was proof that the Secret Service and its local law enforcement allies could act like a well oiled machine - (despite the hampering use of those scrambled phones). It was also proof that the Arizona Organized Crime and Racketeering Unit - the sparkplug of Sundevil - ranked with the best in the world in ambition, organization, and sheer conceptual daring.

And, as a final fillip, Sundevil was a message from the Secret Service to their longtime rivals in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. By Congressional fiat, both USSS and FBI formally share jurisdiction over federal computer crimebusting activities. Neither of these groups has ever been remotely happy with this muddled situation. It seems to suggest that Congress cannot make up its mind as to which of these groups is better qualified. And there is scarcely a G-man or a Special Agent anywhere without a very firm opinion on that topic.


For the neophyte, one of the most puzzling aspects of the crackdown on hackers is why the United States Secret Service has anything at all to do with this matter.

The Secret Service is best known for its primary public role: its agents protect the President of the United States. They also guard the President's family, the Vice President and his family, former Presidents, and Presidential candidates. They sometimes guard foreign dignitaries who are visiting the United States, especially foreign heads of state, and have been known to accompany American officials on diplomatic missions overseas.

Special Agents of the Secret Service don't wear uniforms, but the Secret Service also has two uniformed police agencies. There's the former White House Police (now known as the Secret Service Uniformed Division, since they currently guard foreign embassies in Washington, as well as the White House itself). And there's the uniformed Treasury Police Force.

The Secret Service has been charged by Congress with a number of little-known duties. They guard the precious metals in Treasury vaults. They guard the most valuable historical documents of the United States: originals of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, an American-owned copy of the Magna Carta, and so forth. Once they were assigned to guard the Mona Lisa, on her American tour in the 1960s.

The entire Secret Service is a division of the Treasury Department. Secret Service Special Agents (there are about 1,900 of them) are bodyguards for the President et al, but they all work for the Treasury. And the Treasury (through its divisions of the U.S. Mint and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing) prints the nation's money.

As Treasury police, the Secret Service guards the nation's currency; it is the only federal law enforcement agency with direct jurisdiction over counterfeiting and forgery. It analyzes documents for authenticity, and its fight against fake cash is still quite lively (especially since the skilled counterfeiters of Medellin, Columbia have gotten into the act). Government checks, bonds, and other obligations, which exist in untold millions and are worth untold billions, are common targets for forgery, which the Secret Service also battles. It even handles forgery of postage stamps. But cash is fading in importance today as money has become electronic. As necessity beckoned, the Secret Service moved from fighting the counterfeiting of paper currency and the forging of checks, to the protection of funds transferred by wire.

From wire-fraud, it was a simple skip-and-jump to what is formally known as "access device fraud." Congress granted the Secret Service the authority to investigate "access device fraud" under Title 18 of the United States Code (U.S.C. Section 1029).

The term "access device" seems intuitively simple. It's some kind of high-tech gizmo you use to get money with. It makes good sense to put this sort of thing in the charge of counterfeiting and wirefraud experts.

However, in Section 1029, the term "access device" is very generously defined. An access device is: "any card, plate, code, account number, or other means of account access that can be used, alone or in conjunction with another access device, to obtain money, goods, services, or any other thing of value, or that can be used to initiate a transfer of funds."

"Access device" can therefore be construed to include credit cards themselves (a popular forgery item nowadays). It also includes credit card account numbers, those standards of the digital underground. The same goes for telephone charge cards (an increasingly popular item with telcos, who are tired of being robbed of pocket change by phone-booth thieves). And also telephone access codes, those other standards of the digital underground. (Stolen telephone codes may not "obtain money," but they certainly do obtain valuable "services," which is specifically forbidden by Section 1029.)

We can now see that Section 1029 already pits the United States Secret Service directly against the digital underground, without any mention at all of the word "computer."

Standard phreaking devices, like "blue boxes," used to steal phone service from old-fashioned mechanical switches, are unquestionably "counterfeit access devices." Thanks to Sec. 1029, it is not only illegal to use counterfeit access devices, but it is even illegal to build them. "Producing," "designing," "duplicating," or "assembling" blue boxes are all federal crimes today, and if you do this, the Secret Service has been charged by Congress to come after you.

Automatic Teller Machines, which replicated all over America during the 1980s, are definitely "access devices," too, and an attempt to tamper with their punch-in codes and plastic bank cards falls directly under Sec. 1029.

Section 1029 is remarkably elastic. Suppose you find a computer password in somebody's trash. That password might be a "code" - it's certainly a "means of account access." Now suppose you log on to a computer and copy some software for yourself. You've certainly obtained "service" (computer service) and a "thing of value" (the software). Suppose you tell a dozen friends about your swiped password, and let them use it, too. Now you're "trafficking in unauthorized access devices." And when the Prophet, a member of the Legion of Doom, passed a stolen telephone company document to Knight Lightning at Phrack magazine, they were both charged under Sec. 1029!

There are two limitations on Section 1029. First, the offense must "affect interstate or foreign commerce" in order to become a matter of federal jurisdiction. The term "affecting commerce" is not well defined; but you may take it as a given that the Secret Service can take an interest if you've done most anything that happens to cross a state line. State and local police can be touchy about their jurisdictions, and can sometimes be mulish when the feds show up. But when it comes to computer crime, the local police are pathetically grateful for federal help - in fact they complain that they can't get enough of it. If you're stealing long-distance service, you're almost certainly crossing state lines, and you're definitely "affecting the interstate commerce" of the telcos. And if you're abusing credit cards by ordering stuff out of glossy catalogs from, say, Vermont, you're in for it. The second limitation is money. As a rule, the feds don't pursue penny-ante offenders. Federal judges will dismiss cases that appear to waste their time. Federal crimes must be serious; Section 1029 specifies a minimum loss of a thousand dollars. We now come to the very next section of Title 18, which is Section 1030, "Fraud and related activity in connection with computers." This statute gives the Secret Service direct jurisdiction over acts of computer intrusion. On the face of it, the Secret Service would now seem to command the field. Section 1030, however, is nowhere near so ductile as Section 1029. The first annoyance is Section 1030(d), which reads:

"(d) The United States Secret Service shall, in addition to any other agency having such authority, have the authority to investigate offenses under this section. Such authority of the United States Secret Service shall be exercised in accordance with an agreement which shall be entered into by the Secretary of the Treasury and the Attorney General." (Author's italics.)

The Secretary of the Treasury is the titular head of the Secret Service, while the Attorney General is in charge of the FBI. In Section (d), Congress shrugged off responsibility for the computer crime turf-battle between the Service and the Bureau, and made them fight it out all by themselves. The result was a rather dire one for the Secret Service, for the FBI ended up with exclusive jurisdiction over computer break-ins having to do with national security, foreign espionage, federally insured banks, and U.S. military bases, while retaining joint jurisdiction over all the other computer intrusions. Essentially, when it comes to Section 1030, the FBI not only gets the real glamor stuff for itself, but can peer over the shoulder of the Secret Service and barge in to meddle whenever it suits them. The second problem has to do with the dicey term "Federal interest computer." Section 1030(a)(2) makes it illegal to "access a computer without authorization" if that computer belongs to a financial institution or an issuer of credit cards (fraud cases, in other words). Congress was quite willing to give the Secret Service jurisdiction over money-transferring computers, but Congress balked at letting them investigate any and all computer intrusions. Instead, the USSS had to settle for the money machines and the "Federal interest computers." A "Federal interest computer" is a computer which the government itself owns, or is using. Large networks of interstate computers, linked over state lines, are also considered to be of "Federal interest." (This notion of "Federal interest" is legally rather foggy and has never been clearly defined in the courts. The Secret Service has never yet had its hand slapped for investigating computer break-ins that were not of "Federal interest," but conceivably someday this might happen.)

So the Secret Service's authority over "unauthorized access" to computers covers a lot of territory, but by no means the whole ball of cyberspatial wax. If you are, for instance, a local computer retailer, or the owner of a local bulletin board system, then a malicious local intruder can break in, crash your system, trash your files and scatter viruses, and the U.S. Secret Service cannot do a single thing about it.

At least, it can't do anything directly. But the Secret Service will do plenty to help the local people who can.

The FBI may have dealt itself an ace off the bottom of the deck when it comes to Section 1030; but that's not the whole story; that's not the street. What Congress thinks is one thing, and Congress has been known to change its mind. The real turfstruggle is out there in the streets where it's happening. If you're a local street-cop with a computer problem, the Secret Service wants you to know where you can find the real expertise. While the Bureau crowd are off having their favorite shoes polished - (wing-tips) - and making derisive fun of the Service's favorite shoes - ("pansy-ass tassels") - the tassel-toting Secret Service has a crew of ready-and-able hacker-trackers installed in the capital of every state in the Union. Need advice? They'll give you advice, or at least point you in the right direction. Need training? They can see to that, too.

If you're a local cop and you call in the FBI, the FBI (as is widely and slanderously rumored) will order you around like a coolie, take all the credit for your busts, and mop up every possible scrap of reflected glory. The Secret Service, on the other hand, doesn't brag a lot. They're the quiet types. Very quiet. Very cool. Efficient. High-tech. Mirrorshades, icy stares, radio ear-plugs, an Uzi machine-pistol tucked somewhere in that well-cut jacket. American samurai, sworn to give their lives to protect our President. "The granite agents." Trained in martial arts, absolutely fearless. Every single one of 'em has a top-secret security clearance. Something goes a little wrong, you're not gonna hear any whining and moaning and political buck-passing out of these guys.

The facade of the granite agent is not, of course, the reality. Secret Service agents are human beings. And the real glory in Service work is not in battling computer crime - not yet, anyway - but in protecting the President. The real glamour of Secret Service work is in the White House Detail. If you're at the President's side, then the kids and the wife see you on television; you rub shoulders with the most powerful people in the world. That's the real heart of Service work, the number one priority. More than one computer investigation has stopped dead in the water when Service agents vanished at the President's need.

There's romance in the work of the Service. The intimate access to circles of great power; the esprit de corps of a highly trained and disciplined elite; the high responsibility of defending the Chief Executive; the fulfillment of a patriotic duty. And as police work goes, the pay's not bad. But there's squalor in Service work, too. You may get spat upon by protesters howling abuse - and if they get violent, if they get too close, sometimes you have to knock one of them down - discreetly.

The real squalor in Service work is drudgery such as "the quarterlies," traipsing out four times a year, year in, year out, to interview the various pathetic wretches, many of them in prisons and asylums, who have seen fit to threaten the President's life. And then there's the grinding stress of searching all those faces in the endless bustling crowds, looking for hatred, looking for psychosis, looking for the tight, nervous face of an Arthur Bremer, a Squeaky Fromme, a Lee Harvey Oswald. It's watching all those grasping, waving hands for sudden movements, while your ears strain at your radio headphone for the long-rehearsed cry of "Gun!"

It's poring, in grinding detail, over the biographies of every rotten loser who ever shot at a President. It's the unsung work of the Protective Research Section, who study scrawled, anonymous death threats with all the meticulous tools of antiforgery techniques.

And it's maintaining the hefty computerized files on anyone who ever threatened the President's life. Civil libertarians have become increasingly concerned at the Government's use of computer files to track American citizens - but the Secret Service file of potential Presidential assassins, which has upward of twenty thousand names, rarely causes a peep of protest. If you ever state that you intend to kill the President, the Secret Service will want to know and record who you are, where you are, what you are, and what you're up to. If you're a serious threat - if you're officially considered "of protective interest" - then the Secret Service may well keep tabs on you for the rest of your natural life.

Protecting the President has first call on all the Service's resources. But there's a lot more to the Service's traditions and history than standing guard outside the Oval Office. The Secret Service is the nation's oldest general federal law enforcement agency. Compared to the Secret Service, the FBI are new-hires and the CIA are temps. The Secret Service was founded way back in 1865, at the suggestion of Hugh McCulloch, Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury. McCulloch wanted a specialized Treasury police to combat counterfeiting. Abraham Lincoln agreed that this seemed a good idea, and, with a terrible irony, Abraham Lincoln was shot that very night by John Wilkes Booth.

The Secret Service originally had nothing to do with protecting Presidents. They didn't take this on as a regular assignment until after the Garfield assassination in 1881.

And they didn't get any Congressional money for it until President McKinley was shot in 1901. The Service was originally designed for one purpose: destroying counterfeiters.


There are interesting parallels between the Service's nineteenth-century entry into counterfeiting, and America's twentieth-century entry into computer crime.

In 1865, America's paper currency was a terrible muddle. Security was drastically bad. Currency was printed on the spot by local banks in literally hundreds of different designs. No one really knew what the heck a dollar bill was supposed to look like. Bogus bills passed easily. If some joker told you that a one-dollar bill from the Railroad Bank of Lowell, Massachusetts had a woman leaning on a shield, with a locomotive, a cornucopia, a compass, various agricultural implements, a railroad bridge, and some factories, then you pretty much had to take his word for it. (And in fact he was telling the truth!)

Sixteen hundred local American banks designed and printed their own paper currency, and there were no general standards for security. Like a badly guarded node in a computer network, badly designed bills were easy to fake, and posed a security hazard for the entire monetary system.

No one knew the exact extent of the threat to the currency. There were panicked estimates that as much as a third of the entire national currency was faked. Counterfeiters - known as "boodlers" in the underground slang of the time - were mostly technically skilled printers who had gone to the bad. Many had once worked printing legitimate currency. Boodlers operated in rings and gangs. Technical experts engraved the bogus plates - commonly in basements in New York City. Smooth confidence men passed large wads of high-quality, high denomination fakes, including the really sophisticated stuff - government bonds, stock certificates, and railway shares. Cheaper, botched fakes were sold or sharewared to low-level gangs of boodler wannabes. (The really cheesy lowlife boodlers merely upgraded real bills by altering face values, changing ones to fives, tens to hundreds, and so on.) The techniques of boodling were little-known and regarded with a certain awe by the midnineteenth-century public. The ability to manipulate the system for rip-off seemed diabolically clever. As the skill and daring of the boodlers increased, the situation became intolerable. The federal government stepped in, and began offering its own federal currency, which was printed in fancy green ink, but only on the back - the original "greenbacks." And at first, the improved security of the well-designed, well-printed federal greenbacks seemed to solve the problem; but then the counterfeiters caught on. Within a few years things were worse than ever: a centralized system where all security was bad!

The local police were helpless. The Government tried offering blood money to potential informants, but this met with little success. Banks, plagued by boodling, gave up hope of police help and hired private security men instead. Merchants and bankers queued up by the thousands to buy privately-printed manuals on currency security, slim little books like Laban Heath's Infallible Government Counterfeit Detector. The back of the book offered Laban Heath's patent microscope for five bucks. Then the Secret Service entered the picture. The first agents were a rough and ready crew. Their chief was one William P. Wood, a former guerilla in the Mexican War who'd won a reputation busting contractor fraudsters for the War Department during the Civil War. Wood, who was also Keeper of the Capital Prison, had a sideline as a counterfeiting expert, bagging boodlers for the federal bounty money.

Wood was named Chief of the new Secret Service in July 1865. There were only ten Secret Service agents in all: Wood himself, a handful who'd worked for him in the War Department, and a few former private investigators - counterfeiting experts - whom Wood had won over to public service. (The Secret Service of 1865 was much the size of the Chicago Computer Fraud Task Force or the Arizona Racketeering Unit of 1990.) These ten "Operatives" had an additional twenty or so "Assistant Operatives" and "Informants." Besides salary and per diem, each Secret Service employee received a whopping twenty-five dollars for each boodler he captured.

Wood himself publicly estimated that at least half of America's currency was counterfeit, a perhaps pardonable perception. Within a year the Secret Service had arrested over 200 counterfeiters. They busted about two hundred boodlers a year for four years straight.

Wood attributed his success to travelling fast and light, hitting the bad-guys hard, and avoiding bureaucratic baggage. "Because my raids were made without military escort and I did not ask the assistance of state officers, I surprised the professional counterfeiter."

Wood's social message to the once-impudent boodlers bore an eerie ring of Sundevil: "It was also my purpose to convince such characters that it would no longer be healthy for them to ply their vocation without being handled roughly, a fact they soon discovered."

William P. Wood, the Secret Service's guerilla pioneer, did not end well. He succumbed to the lure of aiming for the really big score. The notorious Brockway Gang of New York City, headed by William E. Brockway, the "King of the Counterfeiters," had forged a number of government bonds. They'd passed these brilliant fakes on the prestigious Wall Street investment firm of Jay Cooke and Company. The Cooke firm were frantic and offered a huge reward for the forgers' plates.

Laboring diligently, Wood confiscated the plates (though not Mr. Brockway) and claimed the reward. But the Cooke company treacherously reneged. Wood got involved in a down-and-dirty lawsuit with the Cooke capitalists. Wood's boss, Secretary of the Treasury McCulloch, felt that Wood's demands for money and glory were unseemly, and even when the reward money finally came through, McCulloch refused to pay Wood anything. Wood found himself mired in a seemingly endless round of federal suits and Congressional lobbying.

Wood never got his money. And he lost his job to boot. He resigned in 1869.

Wood's agents suffered, too. On May 12, 1869, the second Chief of the Secret Service took over, and almost immediately fired most of Wood's pioneer Secret Service agents: Operatives, Assistants and Informants alike. The practice of receiving $25 per crook was abolished. And the Secret Service began the long, uncertain process of thorough professionalization.

Wood ended badly. He must have felt stabbed in the back. In fact his entire organization was mangled.

On the other hand, William P. Wood was the first head of the Secret Service. William Wood was the pioneer. People still honor his name. Who remembers the name of the second head of the Secret Service?

As for William Brockway (also known as "Colonel Spencer"), he was finally arrested by the Secret Service in 1880. He did five years in prison, got out, and was still boodling at the age of seventy-four.


Anyone with an interest in Operation Sundevil - or in American computer crime generally - could scarcely miss the presence of Gail Thackeray, Assistant Attorney General of the State of Arizona. computer crime training manuals often cited Thackeray's group and her work; she was the highest-ranking state official to specialize in computer-related offenses. Her name had been on the Sundevil press release (though modestly ranked well after the local federal prosecuting attorney and the head of the Phoenix Secret Service office). As public commentary, and controversy, began to mount about the Hacker Crackdown, this Arizonan state official began to take a higher and higher public profile. Though uttering almost nothing specific about the Sundevil operation itself, she coined some of the most striking soundbites of the growing propaganda war: "Agents are operating in good faith, and I don't think you can say that for the hacker community," was one. Another was the memorable "I am not a mad dog prosecutor" (Houston Chronicle, Sept 2, 1990.) In the meantime, the Secret Service maintained its usual extreme discretion; the Chicago Unit, smarting from the backlash of the Steve Jackson scandal, had gone completely to earth.

As I collated my growing pile of newspaper clippings, Gail Thackeray ranked as a comparative fount of public knowledge on police operations.

I decided that I had to get to know Gail Thackeray. I wrote to her at the Arizona Attorney General's Office.

Not only did she kindly reply to me, but, to my astonishment, she knew very well what "cyberpunk" science fiction was.

Shortly after this, Gail Thackeray lost her job. And I temporarily misplaced my own career as a science-fiction writer, to become a full-time computer crime journalist. In early March, 1991, I flew to Phoenix, Arizona, to interview Gail Thackeray for my book on the hacker crackdown.


"Credit cards didn't use to cost anything to get," says Gail Thackeray. "Now they cost forty bucks - and that's all just to cover the costs from rip-off artists."

Electronic nuisance criminals are parasites. One by one they're not much harm, no big deal. But they never come just one by one. They come in swarms, heaps, legions, sometimes whole subcultures. And they bite. Every time we buy a credit card today, we lose a little financial vitality to a particular species of bloodsucker. What, in her expert opinion, are the worst forms of electronic crime, I ask, consulting my notes. Is it credit card fraud? Breaking into ATM bank machines? Phone-phreaking? Computer intrusions? Software viruses? Access-code theft? Records tampering? Software piracy? Pornographic bulletin boards? Satellite TV piracy? Theft of cable service? It's a long list. By the time I reach the end of it I feel rather depressed. "Oh no," says Gail Thackeray, leaning forward over the table, her whole body gone stiff with energetic indignation, "the biggest damage is telephone fraud. Fake sweepstakes, fake charities. Boiler-room con operations. You could pay off the national debt with what these guys steal... They target old people, they get hold of credit ratings and demographics, they rip off the old and the weak." The words come tumbling out of her.

It's low-tech stuff, your everyday boiler-room fraud. Grifters, conning people out of money over the phone, have been around for decades. This is where the word "phony" came from!

It's just that it's so much easier now, horribly facilitated by advances in technology and the byzantine structure of the modern phone system. The same professional fraudsters do it over and over, Thackeray tells me, they hide behind dense onion-shells of fake companies... fake holding corporations nine or ten layers deep, registered all over the map. They get a phone installed under a false name in an empty safe-house. And then they call-forward everything out of that phone to yet another phone, a phone that may even be in another state. And they don't even pay the charges on their phones; after a month or so, they just split. Set up somewhere else in another Podunkville with the same seedy crew of veteran phone-crooks. They buy or steal commercial credit card reports, slap them on the PC, have a program pick out people over sixty-five who pay a lot to charities. A whole subculture living off this, merciless folks on the con.

"The `light-bulbs for the blind' people," Thackeray muses, with a special loathing. "There's just no end to them."

We're sitting in a downtown diner in Phoenix, Arizona. It's a tough town, Phoenix. A state capital seeing some hard times. Even to a Texan like myself, Arizona state politics seem rather baroque. There was, and remains, endless trouble over the Martin Luther King holiday, the sort of stiff-necked, foot-shooting incident for which Arizona politics seem famous. There was Evan Mecham, the eccentric Republican millionaire governor who was impeached, after reducing state government to a ludicrous shambles. Then there was the national Keating scandal, involving Arizona savings and loans, in which both of Arizona's U.S. senators, DeConcini and McCain, played sadly prominent roles.

And the very latest is the bizarre AzScam case, in which state legislators were videotaped, eagerly taking cash from an informant of the Phoenix city police department, who was posing as a Vegas mobster.

"Oh," says Thackeray cheerfully. "These people are amateurs here, they thought they were finally getting to play with the big boys. They don't have the least idea how to take a bribe! It's not institutional corruption. It's not like back in Philly."

Gail Thackeray was a former prosecutor in Philadelphia. Now she's a former assistant attorney general of the State of Arizona. Since moving to Arizona in 1986, she had worked under the aegis of Steve Twist, her boss in the Attorney General's office. Steve Twist wrote Arizona's pioneering computer crime laws and naturally took an interest in seeing them enforced. It was a snug niche, and Thackeray's Organized Crime and Racketeering Unit won a national reputation for ambition and technical knowledgeability... Until the latest election in Arizona. Thackeray's boss ran for the top job, and lost. The victor, the new Attorney General, apparently went to some pains to eliminate the bureaucratic traces of his rival, including his pet group - Thackeray's group. Twelve people got their walking papers.

Now Thackeray's painstakingly assembled computer lab sits gathering dust somewhere in the glass-and-concrete Attorney General's HQ on 1275 Washington Street. Her computer crime books, her painstakingly garnered back issues of phreak and hacker zines, all bought at her own expense - are piled in boxes somewhere. The State of Arizona is simply not particularly interested in electronic racketeering at the moment.

At the moment of our interview, Gail Thackeray, officially unemployed, is working out of the county sheriff's office, living on her savings, and prosecuting several cases - working 60-hour weeks, just as always - for no pay at all. "I'm trying to train people," she mutters.

Half her life seems to be spent training people - merely pointing out, to the naive and incredulous (such as myself) that this stuff is actually going on out there. It's a small world, computer crime. A young world. Gail Thackeray, a trim blonde Baby Boomer who favors Grand Canyon white-water rafting to kill some slow time, is one of the world's most senior, most veteran "hacker-trackers." Her mentor was Donn Parker, the California think-tank theorist who got it all started 'way back in the mid70s, the "grandfather of the field," "the great bald eagle of computer crime."

And what she has learned, Gail Thackeray teaches. Endlessly. Tirelessly. To anybody. To Secret Service agents and state police, at the Glynco, Georgia federal training center. To local police, on "roadshows" with her slide projector and notebook. To corporate security personnel. To journalists. To parents.

Even crooks look to Gail Thackeray for advice. Phone-phreaks call her at the office. They know very well who she is. They pump her for information on what the cops are up to, how much they know. Sometimes whole crowds of phone phreaks, hanging out on illegal conference calls, will call Gail Thackeray up. They taunt her. And, as always, they boast. Phone-phreaks, real stone phone-phreaks, simply cannot shut up. They natter on for hours.

Left to themselves, they mostly talk about the intricacies of ripping-off phones; it's about as interesting as listening to hot-rodders talk about suspension and distributor-caps. They also gossip cruelly about each other. And when talking to Gail Thackeray, they incriminate themselves. "I have tapes," Thackeray says coolly.

Phone phreaks just talk like crazy. "Dial-Tone" out in Alabama has been known to spend half an hour simply reading stolen phone-codes aloud into voice-mail answering machines. Hundreds, thousands of numbers, recited in a monotone, without a break - an eerie phenomenon. When arrested, it's a rare phone phreak who doesn't inform at endless length on everybody he knows.

Hackers are no better. What other group of criminals, she asks rhetorically, publishes newsletters and holds conventions? She seems deeply nettled by the sheer brazenness of this behavior, though to an outsider, this activity might make one wonder whether hackers should be considered "criminals" at all. Skateboarders have magazines, and they trespass a lot. Hot rod people have magazines and they break speed limits and sometimes kill people...

I ask her whether it would be any loss to society if phone phreaking and computer hacking, as hobbies, simply dried up and blew away, so that nobody ever did it again. She seems surprised. "No," she says swiftly. "Maybe a little... in the old days... the MIT stuff... But there's a lot of wonderful, legal stuff you can do with computers now, you don't have to break into somebody else's just to learn. You don't have that excuse. You can learn all you like." Did you ever hack into a system? I ask.

The trainees do it at Glynco. Just to demonstrate system vulnerabilities. She's cool to the notion. Genuinely indifferent. "What kind of computer do you have?"

"A Compaq 286LE," she mutters.

"What kind do you wish you had?"

At this question, the unmistakable light of true hackerdom flares in Gail Thackeray's eyes. She becomes tense, animated, the words pour out: "An Amiga 2000 with an IBM card and Mac emulation! The most common hacker machines are Amigas and Commodores. And Apples." If she had the Amiga, she enthuses, she could run a whole galaxy of seized computer-evidence disks on one convenient multifunctional machine. A cheap one, too. Not like the old Attorney General lab, where they had an ancient CP/M machine, assorted Amiga flavors and Apple flavors, a couple IBMs, all the utility software... but no Commodores. The workstations down at the Attorney General's are Wang dedicated word-processors. Lame machines tied in to an office net - though at least they get online to the Lexis and Westlaw legal data services. I don't say anything. I recognize the syndrome, though. This computer-fever has been running through segments of our society for years now. It's a strange kind of lust: K-hunger, Meg-hunger; but it's a shared disease; it can kill parties dead, as conversation spirals into the deepest and most deviant recesses of software releases and expensive peripherals... The mark of the hacker beast. I have it too. The whole "electronic community," whatever the hell that is, has it. Gail Thackeray has it. Gail Thackeray is a hacker cop. My immediate reaction is a strong rush of indignant pity: why doesn't somebody buy this woman her Amiga?! It's not like she's asking for a Cray X-MP supercomputer mainframe; an Amiga's a sweet little cookie-box thing. We're losing zillions in organized fraud; prosecuting and defending a single hacker case in court can cost a hundred grand easy. How come nobody can come up with four lousy grand so this woman can do her job? For a hundred grand we could buy every computer cop in America an Amiga. There aren't that many of 'em.

Computers. The lust, the hunger, for computers. The loyalty they inspire, the intense sense of possessiveness. The culture they have bred. I myself am sitting in downtown Phoenix, Arizona because it suddenly occurred to me that the police might - just might - come and take away my computer. The prospect of this, the mere implied threat, was unbearable. It literally changed my life. It was changing the lives of many others. Eventually it would change everybody's life.

Gail Thackeray was one of the top computer crime people in America. And I was just some novelist, and yet I had a better computer than hers. Practically everybody I knew had a better computer than Gail Thackeray and her feeble laptop 286. It was like sending the sheriff in to clean up Dodge City and arming her with a slingshot cut from an old rubber tire.

But then again, you don't need a howitzer to enforce the law. You can do a lot just with a badge. With a badge alone, you can basically wreak havoc, take a terrible vengeance on wrongdoers. Ninety percent of "computer crime investigation" is just "crime investigation:" names, places, dossiers, modus operandi, search warrants, victims, complainants, informants...

What will computer crime look like in ten years? Will it get better? Did "Sundevil" send 'em reeling back in confusion?

It'll be like it is now, only worse, she tells me with perfect conviction. Still there in the background, ticking along, changing with the times: the criminal underworld. It'll be like drugs are. Like our problems with alcohol. All the cops and laws in the world never solved our problems with alcohol. If there's something people want, a certain percentage of them are just going to take it. Fifteen percent of the populace will never steal. Fifteen percent will steal most anything not nailed down. The battle is for the hearts and minds of the remaining seventy percent.

And criminals catch on fast. If there's not "too steep a learning curve" - if it doesn't require a baffling amount of expertise and practice - then criminals are often some of the first through the gate of a new technology. Especially if it helps them to hide. They have tons of cash, criminals. The new communications tech - like pagers, cellular phones, faxes, Federal Express - were pioneered by rich corporate people, and by criminals. In the early years of pagers and beepers, dope dealers were so enthralled this technology that owing a beeper was practically prima facie evidence of cocaine dealing. CB radio exploded when the speed limit hit 55 and breaking the highway law became a national pastime. Dope dealers send cash by Federal Express, despite, or perhaps because of, the warnings in Fed Ex offices that tell you never to try this. Fed Ex uses X-rays and dogs on their mail, to stop drug shipments. That doesn't work very well.

Drug dealers went wild over cellular phones. There are simple methods of faking ID on cellular phones, making the location of the call mobile, free of charge, and effectively untraceable. Now victimized cellular companies routinely bring in vast toll-lists of calls to Colombia and Pakistan.

Judge Greene's fragmentation of the phone company is driving law enforcement nuts. Four thousand telecommunications companies. Fraud skyrocketing. Every temptation in the world available with a phone and a credit card number. Criminals untraceable. A galaxy of "new neat rotten things to do."

If there were one thing Thackeray would like to have, it would be an effective legal end-run through this new fragmentation minefield.

It would be a new form of electronic search warrant, an "electronic letter of marque" to be issued by a judge. It would create a new category of "electronic emergency." Like a wiretap, its use would be rare, but it would cut across state lines and force swift cooperation from all concerned. Cellular, phone, laser, computer network, PBXes, AT&T, Baby Bells, long-distance entrepreneurs, packet radio. Some document, some mighty court-order, that could slice through four thousand separate forms of corporate red-tape, and get her at once to the source of calls, the source of email threats and viruses, the sources of bomb threats, kidnapping threats. "From now on," she says, "the Lindberg baby will always die."

Something that would make the Net sit still, if only for a moment. Something that would get her up to speed. Seven league boots. That's what she really needs. "Those guys move in nanoseconds and I'm on the Pony Express." And then, too, there's the coming international angle. Electronic crime has never been easy to localize, to tie to a physical jurisdiction. And phone phreaks and hackers loathe boundaries, they jump them whenever they can. The English. The Dutch. And the Germans, especially the ubiquitous Chaos Computer Club. The Australians. They've all learned phone-phreaking from America. It's a growth mischief industry. The multinational networks are global, but governments and the police simply aren't. Neither are the laws. Or the legal frameworks for citizen protection.

One language is global, though - English. Phone phreaks speak English; it's their native tongue even if they're Germans. English may have started in England but now it's the Net language; it might as well be called "CNNese."

Asians just aren't much into phone phreaking. They're the world masters at organized software piracy. The French aren't into phone-phreaking either. The French are into computerized industrial espionage.

In the old days of the MIT righteous hackerdom, crashing systems didn't hurt anybody. Not all that much, anyway. Not permanently. Now the players are more venal. Now the consequences are worse. Hacking will begin killing people soon. Already there are methods of stacking calls onto 911 systems, annoying the police, and possibly causing the death of some poor soul calling in with a genuine emergency. Hackers in Amtrak computers, or airtraffic control computers, will kill somebody someday. Maybe a lot of people. Gail Thackeray expects it.

And the viruses are getting nastier. The "Scud" virus is the latest one out. It wipes hard-disks.

According to Thackeray, the idea that phonephreaks are Robin Hoods is a fraud. They don't deserve this repute. Basically, they pick on the weak. AT&T now protects itself with the fearsome ANI (Automatic Number Identification) trace capability. When AT&T wised up and tightened security generally, the phreaks drifted into the Baby Bells. The Baby Bells lashed out in 1989 and 1990, so the phreaks switched to smaller long-distance entrepreneurs. Today, they are moving into locally owned PBXes and voice-mail systems, which are full of security holes, dreadfully easy to hack. These victims aren't the moneybags Sheriff of Nottingham or Bad King John, but small groups of innocent people who find it hard to protect themselves, and who really suffer from these depredations. Phone phreaks pick on the weak. They do it for power. If it were legal, they wouldn't do it. They don't want service, or knowledge, they want the thrill of powertripping. There's plenty of knowledge or service around, if you're willing to pay. Phone phreaks don't pay, they steal. It's because it is illegal that it feels like power, that it gratifies their vanity.

I leave Gail Thackeray with a handshake at the door of her office building - a vast International Style office building downtown. The Sheriff's office is renting part of it. I get the vague impression that quite a lot of the building is empty - real estate crash. In a Phoenix sports apparel store, in a downtown mall, I meet the "Sun Devil" himself. He is the cartoon mascot of Arizona State University, whose football stadium, "Sundevil," is near the local Secret Service HQ - hence the name Operation Sundevil. The Sun Devil himself is named "Sparky." Sparky the Sun Devil is maroon and bright yellow, the school colors. Sparky brandishes a three-tined yellow pitchfork. He has a small mustache, pointed ears, a barbed tail, and is dashing forward jabbing the air with the pitchfork, with an expression of devilish glee.

Phoenix was the home of Operation Sundevil. The Legion of Doom ran a hacker bulletin board called "The Phoenix Project." An Australian hacker named "Phoenix" once burrowed through the Internet to attack Cliff Stoll, then bragged and boasted about it to The New York Times. This net of coincidence is both odd and meaningless.

The headquarters of the Arizona Attorney General, Gail Thackeray's former workplace, is on 1275 Washington Avenue. Many of the downtown streets in Phoenix are named after prominent American presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Madison...

After dark, all the employees go home to their suburbs. Washington, Jefferson and Madison - what would be the Phoenix inner city, if there were an inner city in this sprawling automobile-bred town - become the haunts of transients and derelicts. The homeless. The sidewalks along Washington are lined with orange trees. Ripe fallen fruit lies scattered like croquet balls on the sidewalks and gutters. No one seems to be eating them. I try a fresh one. It tastes unbearably bitter.

The Attorney General's office, built in 1981 during the Babbitt administration, is a long low two story building of white cement and wall-sized sheets of curtain-glass. Behind each glass wall is a lawyer's office, quite open and visible to anyone strolling by. Across the street is a dour government building labelled simply ECONOMIC SECURITY, something that has not been in great supply in the American Southwest lately.

The offices are about twelve feet square. They feature tall wooden cases full of red-spined lawbooks; Wang computer monitors; telephones; Post-it notes galore. Also framed law diplomas and a general excess of bad Western landscape art. Ansel Adams photos are a big favorite, perhaps to compensate for the dismal specter of the parking lot, two acres of striped black asphalt, which features gravel landscaping and some sickly-looking barrel cacti.

It has grown dark. Gail Thackeray has told me that the people who work late here, are afraid of muggings in the parking lot. It seems cruelly ironic that a woman tracing electronic racketeers across the interstate labyrinth of Cyberspace should fear an assault by a homeless derelict in the parking lot of her own workplace.

Perhaps this is less than coincidence. Perhaps these two seemingly disparate worlds are somehow generating one another. The poor and disenfranchised take to the streets, while the rich and computer-equipped, safe in their bedrooms, chatter over their modems. Quite often the derelicts kick the glass out and break in to the lawyers' offices, if they see something they need or want badly enough. I cross the parking lot to the street behind the Attorney General's office. A pair of young tramps are bedding down on flattened sheets of cardboard, under an alcove stretching over the sidewalk. One tramp wears a glitter-covered T-shirt reading "CALIFORNIA" in Coca-Cola cursive. His nose and cheeks look chafed and swollen; they glisten with what seems to be Vaseline. The other tramp has a ragged long-sleeved shirt and lank brown hair parted in the middle. They both wear blue jeans coated in grime. They are both drunk. "You guys crash here a lot?" I ask them.

They look at me warily. I am wearing black jeans, a black pinstriped suit jacket and a black silk tie. I have odd shoes and a funny haircut.

"It's our first time here," says the red-nosed tramp unconvincingly. There is a lot of cardboard stacked here. More than any two people could use.

"We usually stay at the Vinnie's down the street," says the brown-haired tramp, puffing a Marlboro with a meditative air, as he sprawls with his head on a blue nylon backpack. "The Saint Vincent's." "You know who works in that building over there?" I ask, pointing. The brown-haired tramp shrugs. "Some kind of attorneys, it says."

We urge one another to take it easy. I give them five bucks. A block down the street I meet a vigorous workman who is wheeling along some kind of industrial trolley; it has what appears to be a tank of propane on it.

We make eye contact. We nod politely. I walk past him. "Hey! Excuse me sir!" he says.

"Yes?" I say, stopping and turning.

"Have you seen," the guy says rapidly, "a black guy, about 6'7", scars on both his cheeks like this -" he gestures - "wears a black baseball cap on backwards, wandering around here anyplace?"

"Sounds like I don't much want to meet him," I say.

"He took my wallet," says my new acquaintance. "Took it this morning. Y'know, some people would be scared of a guy like that. But I'm not scared. I'm from Chicago. I'm gonna hunt him down. We do things like that in Chicago."


"I went to the cops and now he's got an APB out on his ass," he says with satisfaction. "You run into him, you let me know." "Okay," I say. "What is your name, sir?"


"And how can I reach you?"

"Oh," Stanley says, in the same rapid voice, "you don't have to reach, uh, me. You can just call the cops. Go straight to the cops." He reaches into a pocket and pulls out a greasy piece of pasteboard. "See, here's my report on him."

I look. The "report," the size of an index card, is labelled PRO-ACT: Phoenix Residents Opposing Active Crime Threat... or is it Organized Against Crime Threat? In the darkening street it's hard to read. Some kind of vigilante group? Neighborhood watch? I feel very puzzled.

"Are you a police officer, sir?"

He smiles, seems very pleased by the question.

"No," he says.

"But you are a `Phoenix Resident?"'

"Would you believe a homeless person," Stanley says.

"Really? But what's with the..." For the first time I take a close look at Stanley's trolley. It's a rubber-wheeled thing of industrial metal, but the device I had mistaken for a tank of propane is in fact a water-cooler. Stanley also has an Army duffel-bag, stuffed tight as a sausage with clothing or perhaps a tent, and, at the base of his trolley, a cardboard box and a battered leather briefcase.

"I see," I say, quite at a loss. For the first time I notice that Stanley has a wallet. He has not lost his wallet at all. It is in his back pocket and chained to his belt. It's not a new wallet. It seems to have seen a lot of wear.

"Well, you know how it is, brother," says Stanley. Now that I know that he is homeless - a possible threat - my entire perception of him has changed in an instant. His speech, which once seemed just bright and enthusiastic, now seems to have a dangerous tang of mania. "I have to do this!" he assures me. "Track this guy down... It's a thing I do... you know... to keep myself together!" He smiles, nods, lifts his trolley by its decaying rubber handgrips.

"Gotta work together, y'know," Stanley booms, his face alight with cheerfulness, "the police can't do everything!"

The gentlemen I met in my stroll in downtown Phoenix are the only computer illiterates in this book. To regard them as irrelevant, however, would be a grave mistake.

As computerization spreads across society, the populace at large is subjected to wave after wave of future shock. But, as a necessary converse, the "computer community" itself is subjected to wave after wave of incoming computer illiterates. How will those currently enjoying America's digital bounty regard, and treat, all this teeming refuse yearning to breathe free? Will the electronic frontier be another Land of Opportunity - or an armed and monitored enclave, where the disenfranchised snuggle on their cardboard at the locked doors of our houses of justice?

Some people just don't get along with computers. They can't read. They can't type. They just don't have it in their heads to master arcane instructions in wirebound manuals. Somewhere, the process of computerization of the populace will reach a limit. Some people - quite decent people maybe, who might have thrived in any other situation - will be left irretrievably outside the bounds. What's to be done with these people, in the bright new shiny electroworld? How will they be regarded, by the mouse-whizzing masters of cyberspace? With contempt? Indifference? Fear?

In retrospect, it astonishes me to realize how quickly poor Stanley became a perceived threat. Surprise and fear are closely allied feelings. And the world of computing is full of surprises.

I met one character in the streets of Phoenix whose role in those book is supremely and directly relevant. That personage was Stanley's giant thieving scarred phantom. This phantasm is everywhere in this book. He is the specter haunting cyberspace.

Sometimes he's a maniac vandal ready to smash the phone system for no sane reason at all. Sometimes he's a fascist fed, coldly programming his mighty mainframes to destroy our Bill of Rights. Sometimes he's a telco bureaucrat, covertly conspiring to register all modems in the service of an Orwellian surveillance regime. Mostly, though, this fearsome phantom is a "hacker." He's strange, he doesn't belong, he's not authorized, he doesn't smell right, he's not keeping his proper place, he's not one of us. The focus of fear is the hacker, for much the same reasons that Stanley's fancied assailant is black.

Stanley's demon can't go away, because he doesn't exist. Despite singleminded and tremendous effort, he can't be arrested, sued, jailed, or fired. The only constructive way to do anything about him is to learn more about Stanley himself. This learning process may be repellent, it may be ugly, it may involve grave elements of paranoiac confusion, but it's necessary. Knowing Stanley requires something more than class-crossing condescension. It requires more than steely legal objectivity. It requires human compassion and sympathy. To know Stanley is to know his demon. If you know the other guy's demon, then maybe you'll come to know some of your own. You'll be able to separate reality from illusion. And then you won't do your cause, and yourself, more harm than good. Like poor damned Stanley from Chicago did.

Warp to section one, section two, section three, section four, section five, section six, section seven or section eight.

Literary Freeware: Not for Commercial Use.

Copyright (c) 1992, 1994 Bruce Sterling -

This HTML version was converted by David Hedbor <> in November 1994, based on the text edition verison 1.2. HTML updated in July 1998.

Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this publication provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.