by John Perry Barlow

Desperados of the DataSphere

So me and my sidekick Howard,  we was sitting out in front of the 40 Rod Saloon one evening  when he all of a sudden says, "Lookee  here.  What do you reckon?"  I look up and there's these two strangers riding into town. They're young and got kind of a restless, bored way about 'em.  A person don't  need both eyes to see they mean trouble...

Well, that wasn't quite how it went.  Actually, Howard and I were floating blind as cave fish in the electronic barrens of the WELL, so the whole incident passed as words on a display screen:

Howard:    Interesting couple of newusers just signed on.  One calls himself acid and the other's optik.

Barlow:    Hmmm.  What are their real names?

Howard:    Check their finger files.

And so I typed !finger acid.  Several seconds later the WELL's Sequent computer sent the following message to my Macintosh in Wyoming:
    Login name: acid            
    In real life: Acid Phreak

By this, I knew that the WELL had a new resident and that his corporeal analog was supposedly called Acid Phreak.  Typing !finger optik yielded results of similar insufficiency, including the claim that someone, somewhere in the real world, was walking around calling himself Phiber Optik.  I doubted it.

However, associating these sparse data with the knowledge that the WELL was about to host a conference on computers and security rendered the conclusion that I had made my first sighting of genuine computer crackers.  As the arrival of an outlaw was a major event to the settlements of the Old West, so was the appearance of crackers cause for stir on the WELL.

The WELL (or Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) is an example of the latest thing in frontier villages, the computer bulletin board.  In this kind of small town, Main Street is a central minicomputer to which (in the case of the WELL) as many as 64 microcomputers may be connected at one time by phone lines and little blinking boxes called modems.

In this silent world, all conversation is typed.  To enter it, one forsakes both body and place and becomes a thing of words alone. You can see what your neighbors are saying (or recently said), but not what either they or their physical surroundings look like.  Town meetings are continuous and discussions rage on everything from sexual kinks to depreciation schedules.

There are thousands of these nodes in the United States, ranging from PC clone hamlets of a few users to mainframe metros like CompuServe, with its 550,000 subscribers.  They are used by corporations to transmit memoranda and spreadsheets, universities to disseminate research, and a multitude of factions, from apiarists to Zoroastrians, for purposes unique to each.

Whether by one telephonic tendril or millions, they are all connected to one another.  Collectively, they form what their inhabitants call the Net.  It extends across that immense region of electron states, microwaves, magnetic fields, light pulses and thought which sci-fi writer William Gibson named Cyberspace.

Cyberspace, in its present condition, has a lot in common with the 19th Century West.  It is vast, unmapped, culturally and legally ambiguous, verbally terse (unless you happen to be a court stenographer), hard to get around in, and up for grabs.  Large institutions already claim to own the place, but most of the actual natives are solitary and independent, sometimes to the point of sociopathy.  It is, of course, a perfect breeding ground for both outlaws and new ideas about liberty.

Recognizing this, Harper's Magazine decided in December, 1989 to hold one of its periodic Forums on the complex of issues surrounding computers, information, privacy, and electronic intrusion or "cracking."  Appropriately, they convened their conference in Cyberspace, using the WELL as the "site."

Harper's invited an odd lot of about 40 participants.  These included: Clifford Stoll, whose book The Cuckoo's Egg details his cunning efforts to nab a German cracker.  John Draper or "Cap'n Crunch," the grand- daddy of crackers whose blue boxes got Wozniak and Jobs into consumer electronics.  Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly of Whole Earth fame.  Steven Levy, who wrote the seminal Hackers.  A retired Army colonel named Dave Hughes.  Lee Felsenstein, who designed the Osborne computer and was once called the "Robespierre of computing."  A UNIX wizard and former hacker named Jeff Poskanzer.  There was also a score of aging techno-hippies, the crackers, and me.

What I was doing there was not precisely clear since I've spent most of my working years either pushing cows or song-mongering, but I at least brought to the situation a vivid knowledge of actual cow-towns, having lived in or around one most of my life.

That and a kind of innocence about both the technology and morality of Cyberspace which was soon to pass into the confusion of knowledge.

At first, I was inclined toward sympathy with Acid 'n' Optik as well as their colleagues, Adelaide, Knight Lightning, Taran King, and Emmanuel.  I've always been more comfortable with outlaws than Republicans, despite having more certain credentials in the latter camp.

But as the Harper's Forum mushroomed into a boom-town of ASCII text (the participants typing 110,000 words in 10 days), I began to wonder.  These kids were fractious, vulgar, immature, amoral, insulting, and too damned good at their work.

Worse, they inducted a number of former kids like myself into Middle Age.  The long feared day had finally come when some gunsel would yank my beard and call me, too accurately, an old fart.

Under ideal circumstances, the blind gropings of bulletin board discourse force a kind of Noh drama stylization on human commerce. Intemperate responses, or "flames" as they are called, are common even among conference participants who understand one another, which, it became immediately clear, the cyberpunks and techno- hippies did not.

My own initial enthusiasm for the crackers wilted under a steady barrage of typed testosterone.  I quickly remembered I didn't know much about who they were, what they did, or how they did it.  I also remembered stories about crackers working in league with the Mob, ripping off credit card numbers and getting paid for them in (stolen) computer equipment.

And I remembered Kevin Mitnik.  Mitnik, now 25, recently served federal time for a variety of computer and telephone related crimes. Prior to incarceration, Mitnik was, by all accounts, a dangerous guy with a computer.  He disrupted phone company operations and arbitrarily disconnected the phones of celebrities.  Like the kid in Wargames, he broke into the North American Defense Command computer in Colorado Springs.

Unlike the kid in Wargames, he is reputed to have made a practice of destroying and altering data. There is even the (perhaps apocryphal) story that he altered the credit information of his probation officer and other enemies.  Digital Equipment claimed that his depredations cost them more than $4 million in computer downtime and file rebuilding.  Eventually, he was turned in by a friend who, after careful observation, had decided he was "a menace to society."

His spectre began to hang over the conference.  After several days of strained diplomacy, the discussion settled into a moral debate on the ethics of security and went critical.

The techno-hippies were of the unanimous opinion that, in Dylan's words, one "must be honest to live outside the law."   But these young strangers apparently lived by no code save those with which they unlocked forbidden regions of the Net.

They appeared to think that improperly secured systems deserved to be violated and, by extension, that unlocked houses ought to be robbed.  This latter built particular heat in me since I refuse, on philosophical grounds, to lock my house.

Civility broke down.  We began to see exchanges like:

Dave Hughes:    Clifford Stoll said a wise thing that no one has commented on. That networks are built on trust. If they aren't, they should be.

Acid Phreak:    Yeah. Sure.  And we should use the 'honor system' as a first line of security against hack attempts.

Jef Poskanzer:    This guy down the street from me sometimes leaves his back door unlocked. I told him about it once, but he still does it.  If I had the chance to do it over, I would go in the back door, shoot him, and take all his money and consumer electronics.  It's the only way to get through to him.

Acid Phreak:    Jef Poskanker (Puss?  Canker?  yechh)  Anyway, now when did you first start having these delusions where computer hacking was even *remotely* similar to murder?

Presented with such a terrifying amalgam of raw youth and apparent power, we fluttered like a flock of indignant Babbitts around the Status Quo, defending it heartily.  One former hacker howled to the Harper's editor in charge of the forum, "Do you or do you not have names and addresses for these criminals?"  Though they had committed no obvious crimes, he was ready to call the police.

They finally got to me with:

Acid:         Whoever said they'd leave the door open to their house... where do you live?  (the address)  Leave it to me in mail if you like.

I had never encountered anyone so apparently unworthy of my trust as these little nihilists.  They had me questioning a basic tenet, namely that the greatest security lies in vulnerability.  I decided it was time to put that principal to the test...

Barlow:        Acid. My house is at 372 North Franklin Street in Pinedale, Wyoming. If you're heading north on Franklin, you go about two blocks off the main drag before you run into hay meadow on the left. I've got the last house before the field. The computer is always on...
        And is that really what you mean? Are you merely just the kind of little sneak that goes around looking for easy places to violate? You disappoint me, pal. For all your James Dean-On-Silicon rhetoric, you're not a cyberpunk. You're just a punk.

Acid Phreak:    Mr. Barlow:  Thank you for posting all I need to get your credit information and a whole lot more!  Now, who is to blame?  ME for getting it or YOU for being such an idiot?! I think this should just about sum things up.

Barlow:        Acid, if you've got a lesson to teach me, I hope it's not that it's idiotic to trust one's fellow man. Life on those terms would be endless and brutal. I'd try to tell you something about conscience, but I'd sound like Father O'Flannigan trying to reform the punk that's about to gutshoot him. For no more reason that to watch him die.
        But actually, if you take it upon yourself to destroy my credit, you might do me a favor. I've been looking for something to put the brakes on my burgeoning materialism.

I spent a day wondering whether I was dealing with another Kevin Mitnik before the other shoe dropped:

Barlow:        ... With crackers like acid and optik, the issue is less intelligence than alienation.  Trade their modems for skateboards and only a slight conceptual shift would occur.

Optik:         You have some pair of balls comparing my talent with that of a skateboarder.  Hmmm...  This was indeed boring, but nonetheless: At which point he downloaded my credit history.

Optik had hacked the core of TRW, an institution which has made my business (and yours) their business, extracting from it an abbreviated ( and incorrect) version of my personal financial life. With this came the implication that he and Acid could and would revise it to my disadvantage if I didn't back off.

I have since learned that while getting someone's TRW file is fairly trivial, changing it is not.  But at that time, my assessment of the crackers'  black skills was one of superstitious awe.  They were digital brujos  about to zombify my economic soul.

To a middle-class American, one's credit rating has become nearly identical to his freedom.  It now appeared that I was dealing with someone who had both the means and desire to hoodoo mine, leaving me trapped in a life of wrinkled bills and money order queues.  Never again would I call the Sharper Image on a whim.

I've been in redneck bars wearing shoulder-length curls, police custody while on acid, and Harlem after midnight, but no one has ever put the spook in me quite as Phiber Optik did at that moment.  I realized that we had problems which exceeded the human conductivity of the WELL's bandwidth.  If someone were about to paralyze me with a spell, I wanted a more visceral sense of him than could fit through a modem.

I e-mailed him asking him to give me a phone call.  I told him I wouldn't insult his skills by giving him my phone number and, with the assurance conveyed by that challenge, I settled back and waited for the phone to ring.  Which, directly, it did.

In this conversation and the others that followed I encountered an intelligent, civilized, and surprisingly principled kid of 18 who sounded, and continues to sound, as though there's little harm in him to man or data.  His cracking impulses seemed purely exploratory, and I've begun to wonder if we wouldn't also regard spelunkers as desperate criminals if AT&T owned all the caves.

The terrifying poses which Optik and Acid had been striking on screen were a media-amplified example of a human adaptation I'd seen before: One becomes as he is beheld.  They were simply living up to what they thought we, and, more particularly, the editors of Harper's, expected of them.  Like the televised tears of disaster victims, their snarls adapted easily to mass distribution.

Months later, Harper's took Optik, Acid and me to dinner at a Manhattan restaurant which, though very fancy, was appropriately Chinese.  Acid and Optik, as material beings, were well-scrubbed and fashionably-clad. They looked to be dangerous as ducks.  But, as Harper's and the rest of the media have discovered to their delight, the boys had developed distinctly showier personae for their rambles through the howling wilderness of Cyberspace.

Glittering with spikes of binary chrome, they strode past the kleig lights and into the digital distance.  There they would be outlaws.  It was only a matter of time before they started to believe themselves as bad as they sounded.  And no time at all before everyone else did.

In this, they were like another kid named Billy, many of whose feral deeds in the pre-civilized West were encouraged by the same dime novelist who chronicled them.  And like Tom Horn, they seemed to have some doubt as to which side of the law they were on.  Acid even expressed an ambition to work for the government someday, nabbing "terrorists and code abusers."

There is also a frontier ambiguity to the "crimes" the crackers commit.  They are not exactly stealing VCR's.  Copying a text file from TRW doesn't deprive its owner of anything except informational exclusivity.  (Though it may said that information has monetary value only in proportion to its containment.)

There was no question that they were making unauthorized use of data channels.  The night I met them, they left our restaurant table and disappeared into the phone booth for a long time.  I didn't see them marshalling quarters before they went.

And, as I became less their adversary and more their scoutmaster, I began to get "conference calls" in which six or eight of them would crack pay phones all over New York and simultaneously land on my line in Wyoming.  These deft maneuvers made me think of sky- diving stunts where large groups convene geometrically in free fall. In this case, the risk was largely legal.

Their other favorite risky business is the time-honored adolescent sport of trespassing.  They insist on going where they don't belong. But then teen-age boys have been proceeding uninvited since the dawn of human puberty.  It seems hard-wired.  The only innovation is in the new form of the forbidden zone the means of getting in it.

In fact, like Kevin Mitnik, I broke into NORAD when I was 17.  A friend and I left a nearby "woodsie" (as rustic adolescent drunks were called in Colorado) and tried to get inside the Cheyenne Mountain.  The chrome-helmeted Air Force MP's held us for about 2 hours before letting us go.  They weren't much older than us and knew exactly our level of national security threat.  Had we come cloaked in electronic mystery, their alert status certainly would have been higher.

Whence rises much of the anxiety.  Everything is so ill-defined.  How can you guess what lies in their hearts when you can't see their eyes? How can one be sure that, like Mitnik, they won't cross the line from trespassing into another adolescent pastime, vandalism?  And how can you be sure they pose no threat when you don't know what a threat might be?

And for the crackers some thrill is derived from the metamorphic vagueness of the laws themselves.  On the Net, their effects are unpredictable. One never knows when they'll bite.

This is because most of the statutes invoked against the crackers were designed in a very different world from the one they explore.  For example, can unauthorized electronic access can be regarded as the ethical equivalent of old-fashioned trespass?  Like open range, the property boundaries of Cyberspace are hard to stake and harder still to defend.

Is transmission through an otherwise unused data channel really theft?  Is the track-less passage of a mind through TRW's mainframe the same as the passage of a pickup through my Back 40?  What is a place if Cyberspace is everywhere?  What are data and what is free speech?  How does one treat property which has no physical form and can be infinitely reproduced?  Is a computer the same as a printing press?  Can the history of my business affairs properly belong to someone else?  Can anyone morally claim to own knowledge itself?

If such questions were hard to answer precisely, there are those who are ready to try.  Based on their experience in the Virtual World, they were about as qualified to enforce its mores as I am to write the Law of the Sea.  But if they lacked technical sophistication, they brought to this task their usual conviction.  And, of course, badges and guns.

Operation Sun Devil

"Recently, we have witnessed an alarming number of young people who, for a variety of  sociological and psychological reasons, have become attached to their  computers and are  exploiting their potential in a criminal manner. Often, a progression of  criminal activity  occurs which involves telecommunications fraud (free long distance phone  calls),  unauthorized access to other computers (whether for profit, fascination, ego,  or the intellectual challenge), credit card fraud (cash advances and unauthorized purchases of  goods), and then move on to other destructive activities like computer  viruses."

"Our experience shows that many computer hacker suspects are no longer misguided  teenagers mischievously playing games with their computers in their  bedrooms.  Some are  now high tech computer operators using computers to engage in unlawful conduct."--    Excerpts from a statement by Garry M. Jenkins Asst. Director, U. S. Secret Service

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against  unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants  shall issue but  upon probable cause, support by oath or affirmation, and particularly  describing the place  to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."--    Amendment IV United States Constitution

On January 24, 1990, a platoon of Secret Service agents entered the apartment which Acid Phreak shares with his mother and 12 year-old sister.  The latter was the only person home when they burst through the door with guns drawn.  They managed to hold her at bay for about half an hour until their quarry happened home.

By then, they were nearly done packing up Acid's worldly goods, including his computer, his notes (both paper and magnetic), books, and such dubiously dangerous tools as a telephone answering machine, a ghetto blaster and his complete collection of audio tapes. One agent asked him to define the real purpose of the answering machine and was frankly skeptical when told that it answered the phone.  The audio tapes seemed to contain nothing but music, but who knew what dark data Acid might have encoded between the notes...

When Acid's mother returned from work, she found her apartment a scene of apprehended criminality.  She asked what, exactly, her son had done to deserve all this attention and was told that, among other things, he had caused the AT&T system crash several days earlier. (Previously AT&T had taken full responsibility.) Thus, the agent explained, her darling boy was thought to have caused over a billion dollars in damage to the economy of the United States.

This accusation was never turned into a formal charge.  Indeed, no charge of any sort of was filed against Mr. Phreak then and, although the Secret Service maintained resolute possession of his hardware, software, and data, no c harge had been charged 4 months later.

Across town, similar scenes were being played out at the homes of Phiber Optik and another colleague code-named Scorpion.  Again, equipment, notes, disks both hard and soft, and personal effects were confiscated.  Again no charges were filed.

Thus began the visible phase of Operation Sun Devil, a two-year Secret Service investigation which involved 150 federal agents, numerous local and state law enforcement agencies. and the combined security resources of PacBell, AT&T, Bellcore, Bell South MCI, U.S. Sprint, Mid-American, Southwestern Bell, NYNEX, U.S. West and American Express.

The focus of this impressive institutional array was the Legion of Doom, a group which never had any formal membership list but was thought by the members with whom I spoke to number less than 20, nearly all of them in their teens or early twenties.

I asked Acid why they'd chosen such a threatening name.  "You wouldn't want a fairy kind of thing like Legion of Flower Pickers or something.  But the media ate it up too.  Probing the Legion of Doom like it was a gang or something, when really it was just a bunch of geeks behind terminals."

Sometime in December 1988, a 21 year-old Atlanta-area Legion of Doomster named The Prophet cracked a Bell South computer and downloaded a three-page text file which outlined, in bureaucrat-ese of surpassing opacity, the administrative procedures and responsibilities for marketing, servicing, upgrading, and billing for Bell South's 911 system.

A dense thicket of acronyms, the document was filled with passages like:

"In accordance with the basic SSC/MAC strategy for provisioning, the SSC/MAC will be  Overall Control Office (OCO) for all Notes to PSAP circuits (official services)  and any  other services for this customer.  Training must be scheduled for all  SSC/MAC involved  personnel during the pre-service stage of the project." And other such.

At some risk, I too have a copy of this document.  To read the whole thing straight through without entering coma requires either a machine or a human who has too much practice thinking like one. Anyone who can understand it fully and fluidly has altered his consciousness beyond the ability to ever again read Blake, Whitman, or Tolstoy.  It is, quite simply, the worst writing I have ever tried to read.

Since the document contains little of interest to anyone who is not a student of advanced organizational sclerosis...that is, no access codes, trade secrets, or proprietary information...I assume The Prophet only copied this file as a kind of hunting trophy.  He had been to the heart of the forest and had returned with this coonskin to nail to the barn door.

Furthermore, he was proud of his accomplishment, and since such trophies are infinitely replicable, he wasn't content to nail it to his door alone.  Among the places he copied it was a UNIX bulletin board (rather like the WELL) in Lockport, Illinois called Jolnet.

It was downloaded from there by a 20 year-old hacker and pre-law student (whom I had met in the Harper's Forum) who called himself Knight Lightning.  Though not a member of the Legion of Doom, Knight Lightning and a friend, Taran King, also published from St. Louis and his fraternity house at the University of Missouri a worldwide hacker's magazine called Phrack.  (From phone phreak and hack.)

Phrack was an unusual publication in that it was entirely virtual.  The only time its articles hit paper was when one of its subscribers decided to print out a hard copy.  Otherwise, its editions existed in Cyberspace and took no physical form.

When Knight Lightning got hold of the Bell South document, he thought it would amuse his readers and reproduced it in the next issue of Phrack.  He had little reason to think that he was doing something illegal.  There is nothing in it to indicate that it contains proprietary or even sensitive information.  Indeed, it closely resembles telco reference documents which have long been publicly available.

However, Rich Andrews, the systems operator who oversaw the operation of Jolnet, thought there might be something funny about the document when he first ran across it in his system.  To be on the safe side, he forwarded a copy of it to AT&T officials.  He was subsequently contacted by the authorities, and he cooperated with them fully.  He would regret that later.

On the basis of the forgoing, a Grand Jury in Lockport was persuaded by the Secret Service in early February to hand down a seven count indictment against The Prophet and Knight Lightning, charging them, among other things, with interstate transfer of stolen property worth more than $5,000.  When The Prophet and two of his Georgia colleagues were arrested on February 7, 1990, the Atlanta papers reported they faced 40 years in prison and a $2 million fine.  Knight Lightning was arrested on February 15.

The property in question was the affore-mentioned blot on the history of prose whose full title was A Bell South Standard Practice (BSP) 660-225-104SV-Control Office Administration of Enhanced 911 Services for Special Services and Major Account Centers, March, 1988.

And not only was this item worth more than $5,000.00, it was worth, according to the indictment and Bell South, precisely $79,449.00.  And not a penny less.  We will probably never know how this figure was reached or by whom, though I like to imagine an appraisal team consisting of Franz Kafka, Joseph Heller, and Thomas Pynchon...

In addition to charging Knight Lightning with crimes for which he could go to jail 30 years and be fined $122,000.00, they seized his publication, Phrack, along with all related equipment, software and data, including his list of subscribers, many of whom would soon lose their computers and data for the crime of appearing on it.

I talked to Emmanuel Goldstein, the editor of 2600, another hacker publication which has been known to publish purloined documents. If they could shut down Phrack, couldn't they as easily shut down 2600?

He said, "I've got one advantage.  I come out on paper and the Constitution knows   how to deal with paper."

In fact, nearly all publications are now electronic at some point in their creation.  In a modern newspaper, stories written at the scene are typed to screens and then sent by modem to a central computer. This computer composes the layout in electronic type and the entire product transmitted electronically to the presses.  There, finally, the bytes become ink.

Phrack merely omitted the last step in a long line of virtual events. However, that omission, and its insignificant circulation, left it vulnerable to seizure based on content.  If the 911 document had been the Pentagon Papers (another proprietary document) and Phrack the New York Times, a completion of the analogy would have seen the government stopping publication of the Times and seizing its every material possession, from notepads to presses.

Not that anyone in the newspaper business seemed particularly worried about such implications.  They, and the rest of the media who bothered to report Knight Lightning's arrest were too obsessed by what they portrayed as actual disruptions of emergency service and with marvelling at the sociopathy of it.  One report expressed relief that no one appeared to have died as a result of the "intrusions."

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, the 911 dragnet snared Leonard Rose, aka Terminus.  A professional computer consultant who specialized in UNIX, Rose got a visit from the government early in February.  The G-men forcibly detained his wife and children for six hours while they interrogated Rose about the 911 document and ransacked his system.

Rose had no knowledge of the 911 matter.  Indeed, his only connection had been occasional contact with Knight Lightning over several years...and admitted membership in the Legion of Doom. However, when searching his hard disk for 911 evidence, they found something else.  Like many UNIX consultants, Rose did have some UNIX source code in his possession.   Furthermore, there was evidence that he had transmitted some of it to Jolnet and left it there for another consultant.

UNIX is a ubiquitous operating system, and though its main virtue is its openness to amendment at the source level, it is nevertheless the property of AT&T.  What had been widely d  istributed within businesses and universities for years was suddenly, in Rose's hands, a felonious possession.

Finally, the Secret Service rewarded the good citizenship of Rich Andrews by confiscating the computer where Jolnet had dwelt, along with all the e-mail, read and un-read, which his subscribers had left there.  Like the many others whose equipment and data were taken by the Secret Service subsequently, he wasn't charged with anything. Nor is he likely to be.  They have already inflicted on him the worst punishment a nerd can suffer: data death.

Andrews was baffled.  "I'm the one that found it, I'm the one that turned it in...And I'm the one that's suffering," he said.

One wonders what will happen when they find such documents on the hard disks of CompuServe.  Maybe I'll just upload my copy of Bell South Standard Practice (BSP) 660-225-104SV and see...

In any case, association with stolen data is all the guilt you need.  It's quite as if the government could seize your house simply because a guest left a stolen VCR in an upstairs bedroom closet.  Or confiscate all the mail in a post office upon finding a stolen package there. The first concept of modern jurisprudence to have arrived in Cyberspace seems to have been Zero Tolerance.


Rich Andrews was not the last to learn about the Secret Service's debonair new attitude toward the 4th Amendment's protection against unreasonable seizure.

Early on March 1, 1990, the offices of a role-playing game publisher in Austin, Texas called Steve Jackson Games were visited by agents of the United States Secret Service.  They ransacked the premises, broke into several locked filing cabinets (damaging them irreparably in the process) and eventually left carrying 3 computers, 2 laser printers, several hard disks, and many boxes of paper and floppy disks.

Later in the day, callers to the Illuminati BBS (which Steve Jackson Games operated to keep in touch with roll-players around the country) encountered the following message:

"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."

It's been three months as I write this and, not only has nothing been returned to them, but, according to Steve Jackson, the Secret Service will no longer take his calls.  He figures that, in the months since the raid, his little company has lost an estimated $125,000.  With such a fiscal hemorrhage, he can't afford a lawyer to take after the Secret Service.  Both the state and national offices of the ACLU told him to "run along" when he solicited their help.

He tried to go to the press.  As in most other cases, they were unwilling to raise the alarm.  Jackson theorized, "The conservative press is taking the attitude that the suppression of evil hackers is a good thing and that anyone who happens to be put out of business in the meantime...well, that's just their tough luck."

In fact, Newsweek did run a story about the event, portraying it from Jackson's perspective, but they were almost alone in dealing with it.

What had he done to deserve this nightmare?  Role-playing games, of which Dungeons and Dragons is the most famous, have been accused of creating obsessive involvement in their nerdy young players, but no one before had found it necessary to prevent their publication.

It seems that Steve Jackson had hired the wrong writer.  The managing editor of Steve Jackson Games is a former cracker,  known by his fellows in the Legion of Doom as The Mentor.  At the time of the raid, he and the rest of Jackson staff had been working for over a year on a game called GURPS Cyberpunk, High-Tech Low-Life Role- Playing.

At the time of the Secret Service raids, the game resided entirely on the hard disks they confiscated.  Indeed, it was their target.  They told Jackson that, based on its author's background, they had reason to believe it was a "handbook on computer crime."  It was therefore inappropriate for publication, 1st Amendment or no 1st Amendment.

I got a copy of the game from the trunk of The Mentor's car in an Austin parking lot.  Like the Bell South document, it seemed pretty innocuous to me, if a little inscrutable.   Borrowing its flavor from the works of William Gibson and Austin sci-fi author Bruce Sterling, it is filled with silicon brain implants, holodecks, and gauss guns.

It is, as the cover copy puts it, "a fusion of the dystopian visions of George Orwell and Timothy Leary." Actually, without the gizmos, it describes a future kind of like the present its publisher is experiencing at the hands of the Secret Service.

An unbelievably Byzantine world resides within its 120 large pages of small print.  (These roll-players must be some kind of idiots savants...)  Indeed, it's a thing of such complexity that I can't swear there's no criminal information in there, but then I can't swear that Grateful Dead records don't have satanic messages if played backwards.  Anything's possible, especially inside something as remarkable as Cyberpunk.

The most remarkable thing about Cyberpunk is the fact that it was printed at all.  After much negotiation, Jackson was able to get the Secret Service to let him have some of his data back.  However, they told him that he would be limited to an hour and a half with only one of his three computers.  Also, according to Jackson, "They insisted that all the copies be made by a Secret Service agent who was a two- finger typist.  So we didn't get much. "

In the end, Jackson and his staff had to reconstruct most of the game from neural rather than magnetic memory.  They did have a few very old backups, and they retrieved some scraps which had been passed around to game testers.  They also had the determination of the enraged.

Despite government efforts to impose censorship by prior restraint, Cyberpunk is now on the market.  Presumably, advertising it as "The book that was seized by the U.S. Secret Service" will invigorate sales. But Steve Jackson Games, the heretofore prosperous publisher of more than a hundred role-playing games, has been forced to lay off more than half of its employees and may well be mortally wounded.

Any employer who has heard this tale will think hard before he hires a computer cracker.  Which may be, of course, among the effects the Secret Service desires.


On May 8, 1990, Operation Sun Devil, heretofore an apparently random and nameless trickle of Secret Service actions, swept down on the Legion of Doom and its ilk like a bureaucratic tsunami.  On that day, the Secret Service served 27 search warrants in 14 cities from Plano, Texas to New York, New York.

The law had come to Cyberspace.  When the day was over, transit through the wide open spaces of the Virtual World would be a lot trickier.

In a press release following the sweep, the Secret Service boasted having shut down numerous computer bulletin boards, confiscated 40 computers, and seized 23,000 disks.  They noted in their statement that "the conceivable criminal violations of this operation have serious implications for the health and welfare of all individuals, corporations, and United States Government agencies relying on computers and telephones to communicate."

It was unclear from their statement whether "this operation" meant the Legion of Doom or Operation Sun Devil.  There was room to interpret it either way.

Because the deliciously ironic truth is that, aside from the 3 page Bell South document, the hackers had neither removed nor damaged anyone's data. Operation Sun Devil, on the other hand, had "serious implications" for a number of folks who relied on "computers and telephones to communicate." They lost the equivalent of about 5.4 million pages of information.  Not to mention a few computers and telephones.

And the welfare of the individuals behind those figures was surely in jeopardy.  Like the story of the single mother and computer consultant in Baltimore whose sole means of supporting herself and her 18 year old son was stripped away early one morning.  Secret Service agents broke down her door with sledge hammers, entered with guns drawn, and seized all her computer equipment. Apparently her son had also been using it...

Or the father in New York who opened the door at 6:00 AM and found a shotgun at his nose.  A dozen agents entered.  While one of the kept the man's wife in a choke-hold, the rest made ready to shoot and entered the bedroom of their sleeping 14 year-old.  Before leaving, they confiscated every piece of electronic equipment in the house, including all the telephones.

It was enough to suggest that the insurance companies should start writing policies against capricious governmental seizure of circuitry.

In fairness, one can imagine the government's problem.  This is all pretty magical stuff  to them.  If I were trying to terminate the operations of a witch coven, I'd probably seize everything in sight. How would I tell the ordinary household brooms from the getaway vehicles?

But as I heard more and more about the vile injustices being heaped on my young pals in the Legion of Doom, not to mention the unfortunate folks nearby, the less I was inclined toward such temperate thoughts as these.  I drifted back into a 60's-style sense of the government, thinking it a thing of monolithic and evil efficiency and adopting an up-against-the-wall willingness to spit words like "pig" or "fascist" into my descriptions.

In doing so, I endowed the Secret Service with a clarity of intent which no agency of government will ever possess.  Despite almost every experience I've ever had with federal authority, I keep imagining its competence.

For some reason, it was easier to invest the Keystone Kapers of Operation Sun Devil with malign purpose rather than confront their absurdity straight-on.  There is, after all, a twisted kind of comfort in political paranoia.  It provides one such a sense of orderliness to think that the government is neither crazy nor stupid and that its plots, though wicked, are succinct.

I was about to have an experience which would restore both my natural sense of unreality and my unwillingness to demean the motives of others.  I was about to see first hand the disorientation of the law in the featureless vastness of Cyberspace.

In Search of NuPrometheus

"I pity the poor immigrant..."

--    Bob Dylan

Sometime last June, an angry hacker got hold of a chunk of the highly secret source code which drives the Apple Macintosh.  He then distributed it to a variety of addresses, claiming responsibility for this act of information terrorism in the name of the Nu  Prometheus League.

Apple freaked.  NuPrometheus had stolen, if not the Apple crown jewels, at least a stone from them.  Worse, NuPrometheus had then given this prize away.  Repeatedly.

All Apple really has to offer the world is the software which lies encoded in silicon on the ROM chip of every Macintosh.  This set of instructions is the cyber-DNA which makes a Macintosh a Macintosh.

Worse, much of the magic in this code was put there by people who not only do not work for Apple any longer, but might only do so again if encouraged with cattle prods.  Apple's attitude toward its ROM code is a little like that of a rich kid toward his inheritance.  Not actually knowing how to create wealth himself, he guards what he has with hysterical fervor.

Time passed, and I forgot about the incident.  But one recent May morning, I leaned that others had not.  The tireless search for the spectral heart of NuPrometheus finally reached Pinedale, Wyoming, where I was the object of a two hour interview by Special Agent Richard Baxter, Jr.  of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Poor Agent Baxter didn't know a ROM chip from a Vise-grip when he arrived, so much of that time was spent trying to educate him on the nature of the thing which had been stolen.  Or whether "stolen"was the right term for what had happened to it.

You know things have rather jumped the groove when potential suspects must explain to law enforcers the nature of their alleged perpetrations.

I wouldn't swear Agent Baxter ever got it quite right.  After I showed him some actual source code, gave a demonstration of e-mail in action, and downloaded a file  from the WELL, he took to rubbing his face with both hands, peering up over his finger tips and saying, "It sure is something, isn't it"  Or, "Whooo-ee."

Or "my eight year-old knows more about these things than I do."  He didn't say this with a father's pride so much as an immigrant's fear of a strange new land into which he will be forcibly moved and in which his own child is a native.  He looked across my keyboard into Cyberspace and didn't like what he saw.

We could have made it harder for one another, but I think we each sensed that the other occupied a world which was as bizarre and nonsensical as it could be. We did our mutual best to suppress immune response at the border.

You'd have thought his world might have been a little more recognizable to me.  Not so, it turns out.  Because in his world, I found several unfamiliar features, including these:

1.    The Hacker's Conference is an underground organization of computer outlaws with likely connections to, and almost certainly sympathy with, the NuPrometheus League.  (Or as Agent Baxter repeatedly put it, the "New Prosthesis League.")

 2.    John Draper, the affore-mentioned Cap'n Crunch, in addition to being a known member of the Hacker's Conference, is also CEO and president of Autodesk, Inc.  This is of particular concern to the  FBI because Autodesk has many top-secret contracts with the government to supply Star Wars graphics imaging and "hyperspace" technology.  Worse, Draper is thought to have Soviet contacts.

He wasn't making this up.  He had lengthy documents from the San Francisco office to prove it.  And in which Autodesk's address was certainly correct.

On the other hand, I know John Draper. While, as I say, he may have once distinguished himself as a cracker during the Pleistocene, he is not now, never has been, and never will be CEO of Autodesk.  He did work there for awhile last year, but he was let go long before he got in a position to take over.

Nor is Autodesk, in my experience with it, the Star Wars skunk works which Agent Baxter's documents indicated.  One could hang out there a long time without ever seeing any gold braid.

Their primary product is something called AutoCAD, by far the most popular computer-aided design software but generally lacking in lethal potential.  They do have a small development program in Cyberspace, which is what they call Virtual Reality.  (This, I assume is the "hyperspace" to which Agent Baxter's documents referred.)

However, Autodesk had reduced its Cyberspace program to a couple of programmers. I imagined Randy Walser and Carl Tollander toiling away in the dark and lonely service of their country.  Didn't work. Then I tried to describe Virtual Reality to Agent Baxter, but that didn't work either.  In fact, he tilted.  I took several runs at it, but I could tell I was violating our border agreements. These seemed to include a requirement that neither of us try to drag the other across into his conceptual zone.

I fared a little better on the Hacker's Conference.  Hardly a conspiracy, the Hacker's Conference is an annual convention originated in 1984 by the Point Foundation and the editors of Whole Earth Review.  Each year it invites about a hundred of the most gifted and accomplished of digital creators. Indeed, they are the very people who have conducted the personal computer revolution.  Agent Baxter looked at my list of Hacker's Conference attendees and read their bios.

"These are the people who actually design this stuff, aren't they?"  He was incredulous.  Their corporate addresses didn't fit his model of outlaws at all well.

Why had he come all the way to Pinedale to investigate a crime he didn't understand which had taken place (sort of) in 5 different places, none of which was within 500 miles?

Well, it seems Apple has told the FBI that they can expect little cooperation from Hackers in and around the Silicon Valley, owing to virulent anti-Apple sentiment there.  They claim this is due to the Hacker belief that software should be free combined with festering resentment of Apple's commercial success.  They advised the FBI to question only those Hackers who were as far as possible from the twisted heart of the subculture.

They did have their eye on some local people though.  These included a couple of former Apple employees, Grady Ward and Water Horat, Chuck Farnham (who has made a living out of harassing Apple), Glenn Tenney (the purported leader of the Hackers), and, of course, the purported CEO of Autodesk.

Other folks Agent Baxter asked me about included Mitch Kapor, who wrote Lotus 1-2-3 and was  known to have received some this mysterious source code.  Or whatever.  But I had also met Mitch Kapor, both on the WELL and in person.  A less likely computer terrorist would be hard to come by.

Actually, the question of the source code was another area where worlds but shadow-boxed.  Although Agent Baxter didn't know source code from Tuesday, he did know that Apple Computer had told his agency that what had been stolen and disseminated was the complete recipe for a Macintosh computer.  The distribution of this secret formula might result in the creation of millions of Macintoshes not made by Apple.  And, of course, the ruination of Apple Computer.

In my world, NuPrometheus (whoever they, or more likely, he might be) had distributed a small portion of the code which related specifically to Color QuickDraw.  QuickDraw is Apple's name for the software which controls the Mac's on-screen graphics.  But this was another detail which  Agent Baxter could not capture.  For all he knew, you could grow Macintoshes from floppy disks.

I explained to him that Apple was alleging something like the ability to assemble an entire human being from the recipe for a foot, but even he know the analogy was inexact.  And trying to get him to accept the idea that a corporation could go mad with suspicion was quite futile.  He had a far different perception of the emotional reliability of institutions.

When he finally left, we were both dazzled and disturbed.  I spent some time thinking about Lewis Carroll and tried to return to writing about the legal persecution of the Legion of Doom.  But my heart wasn't in it.  I found myself suddenly too much in sympathy with Agent Baxter and his struggling colleagues from Operation Sun Devil to get back into a proper sort of pig-bashing mode.

Given what had happened to other innocent bystanders like Steve Jackson, I gave some thought to getting scared.  But this was Kafka in a clown suit.  It wasn't precisely frightening.  I also took some comfort in a phrase once applied to the administration of Frederick the Great: "Despotism tempered by incompetence."

Of course, incompetence is a double-edged banana.  While we may know this new territory better than the authorities, they have us literally out-gunned.  One should pause before making well-armed paranoids feel foolish, no matter how foolish they seem.

The Fear of White Noise

"Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity."

--    Sigmund Freud,
    appearing to me in a dream

I'm a member of that half of the human race which is inclined to divide the human race into two kinds of people.  My dividing line runs between the people who crave certainty and the people who trust chance.

You can draw this one a number of ways, of course, like Control vs. Serendipity, Order vs. Chaos, Hard answers vs. Silly questions, or Newton, Descartes & Aquinas vs. Heisenberg, Mandelbrot & the Dalai Lama.  Etc.

Large organizations and their drones huddle on one end of my scale, busily trying to impose predictable homogeneity on messy circumstance.  On the other end, free-lancers and ne'er-do-wells cavort about, getting by on luck  if they get by at all.

However you cast these poles, it comes down to the difference between those who see life as a struggle against cosmic peril and human infamy and those who believe, without any hard evidence, that the universe is actually on our side.  Fear vs. Faith.

I am of the latter group.  Along with Gandhi and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, I believe that other human beings will quite consistently merit my trust if I'm not doing something which scares them or makes them feel bad about themselves.  In other words, the best defense is a good way to get hurt.

In spite of the fact that this system works very reliably for me and my kind, I find we are increasingly in the minority.  More and more of our neighbors live in armed compounds.  Alarms blare continuously. Potentially happy people give their lives over to the corporate state as though the world were so dangerous outside its veil of collective immunity that they have no choice.

I have a number of theories as to why this is happening.  One has to do with the opening of Cyberspace.  As a result of this development, humanity is now undergoing the most profound transformation of its history.  Coming into the Virtual World, we inhabit Information. Indeed, we become Information.  Thought is embodied and the Flesh is made Word.  It's weird as hell.

Beginning with the invention of the telegraph and extending through television into Virtual Reality, we have been, for a over a century, experiencing a terrifying erosion in our sense of both body and place. As we begin to realize the enormity of what is happening to us, all but the most courageous have gotten scared.

And everyone, regardless of his psychic resilience, feels this overwhelming sense of strangeness.  The world, once so certain and tangible and legally precise, has become an infinite layering of opinions, perceptions, litigation, camera-angles, data, white noise, and, most of all, ambiguities.  Those of us who are of the fearful persuasion do not like ambiguities.

Indeed, if one were a little jumpy to start with, he may now be fairly humming with nameless dread.  Since no one likes his dread to be nameless, the first order of business is to find it some names.

For a long time here in the United States, Communism provided a kind of catch-all bogeyman.  Marx, Stalin and Mao summoned forth such a spectre that, to many Americans, annihilation of all life was preferable to the human portion's becoming Communist.  But as Big Red wizened and lost his teeth, we began to cast about for a replacement.

Finding none of sufficient individual horror, we have draped a number of objects with the old black bunting which once shrouded the Kremlin.  Our current spooks are terrorists, child abductors, AIDS, and the underclass.  I would say drugs, but anyone who thinks that the War on Drugs is not actually the War on the Underclass hasn't been paying close enough attention. There are a couple of problems with these Four Horsemen.  For one thing, they aren't actually very dangerous.  For example, only 7 Americans died in worldwide terrorist attacks in 1987.  Fewer than 10 (out of about 70 million) children are abducted by strangers in the U.S. each year.  Your chances of getting AIDS if you are neither gay nor a hemophiliac nor a junkie are considerably less than your chances of getting killed by lightning while golfing.  The underclass is dangerous, of course, but only, with very few exceptions, if you are a member of it.

The other problem with these perils is that they are all physical.  If we are entering into a world in which no one has a body, physical threats begin to lose their sting.

And now I come to the point of this screed:  The perfect bogeyman for Modern Times is the Cyberpunk!  He is so smart he makes you feel even more stupid than you usually do.  He knows this complex country in which you're perpetually lost.  He understands the value of things you can't conceptualize long enough to cash in on.  He is the one-eyed man in the Country of the Blind.

In a world where you and your wealth consist of nothing but beeps and boops of micro-voltage, he can steal all your assets in nanoseconds and then make you disappear.

He can even reach back out of his haunted mists and kill you physically.  Among the justifications for Operation Sun Devil was this chilling tidbit:

"Hackers had the ability to access and review the files of hospital patients. Furthermore,  they could have  added, deleted, or altered vital patient information, possibly  causing life- threatening situations."

Perhaps the most frightening thing about the Cyberpunk is the danger he presents to The Institution, whether corporate or governmental.  If you are frightened you have almost certainly taken shelter by now in one of these collective organisms, so the very last thing you want is something which can endanger your heretofore unassailable hive.

And make no mistake, crackers will become to bureaucratic bodies what viruses presently are to human bodies.  Thus, Operation Sun Devil can be seen as the first of many waves of organizational immune response to this new antigen.  Agent Baxter was a T-cell. Fortunately, he didn't know that himself and I was very careful not to show him my own antigenic tendencies.

I think that herein lies the way out of what might otherwise become an Armageddon between the control freaks and the neo-hip.  Those who are comfortable with these disorienting changes must do everything in our power to convey that comfort to others.  In other words, we must share our sense of hope and opportunity with those who feel that in Cyberspace they will be obsolete eunuchs for sure.

It's a tall order.  But, my silicon brothers, our self-interest is strong.  If we come on as witches, they will burn us.  If we volunteer to guide them gently into its new lands, the Virtual World might be a more amiable place for all of us than this one has been.

Of course, we may also have to fight.


Defining the conceptual and legal map of Cyberspace before the ambiguophobes do it for us (with punitive over-precision) is going to require some effort.  We can't expect the Constitution to take care of itself.  Indeed, the precedent for mitigating the Constitutional protection of a new medium has already been established.  Consider what happened to radio in the early part of this century.

Under the pretext of allocating limited bandwidth, the government established an early right of censorship over broadcast content which still seems directly unconstitutional to me.  Except that it stuck.  And now, owing to a large body of case law, looks to go on sticking.

New media, like any chaotic system, are highly sensitive to initial conditions.  Today's heuristical answers of the moment become tomorrow's permanent institutions of both law and expectation. Thus, they bear examination with that destiny in mind.

Earlier in this article, I asked a number of tough questions relating to the nature of property, privacy, and speech in the digital domain. Questions like:  "What are data and what is free speech?" or  "How does one treat property which has no physical form and can be infinitely reproduced?"  or  "Is a computer the same as a printing press."  The events of Operation Sun Devil were nothing less than an effort to provide answers to these questions.  Answers which  would greatly enhance governmental ability to silence the future's opinionated nerds.

In over-reaching as extravagantly as they did, the Secret Service may actually have done a service for those of us who love liberty.  They have provided us with a devil.  And devils, among their other galvanizing virtues, are just great for clarifying the issues and putting iron in your spine.  In the presence of a devil, it's always easier to figure out where you stand.

While I previously had felt no stake in the obscure conundra of free telecommunication, I was, thanks to Operation Sun Devil, suddenly able to plot a trajectory from the current plight of the Legion of Doom to an eventual constraint on opinions much dearer to me.  I remembered Martin Neimoeller, who said:

"In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a  Communist.  Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I  wasn't a Jew.   They came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a  trade unionist.   Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a  Protestant.  Then  they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up."

I decided it was time for me to speak up.  

The evening of my visit from Agent Baxter, I wrote an account of it which I placed on the WELL.   Several days later, Mitch Kapor literally dropped by for a chat.

Also a WELL denizen, he had read about Agent Baxter and had begun to meditate on the inappropriateness of leaving our civil liberties to be defined by the technologically benighted.  A man who places great emphasis on face-to-face contact, he wanted to discuss this issue with me in person.  He had been flying his Canadair bizjet to a meeting in California when he realized his route took him directly over Pinedale.

We talked for a couple of hours in my office while a spring snowstorm swirled outside.  When I recounted for him what I had learned about Operation Sun Devil, he decided it was time for him to speak up too.

He called a few days later with the phone number of a civil libertarian named Harvey Silverglate, who, as evidence of his conviction that everyone deserves due process, is   currently defending Leona Helmsley.  Mitch asked me to tell Harvey what I knew, with the inference that he would help support the costs which are liable to arise whenever you tell a lawyer anything.

I found Harvey in New York at the offices of that city's most distinguished constitutional law firm, Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky, and Lieberman.  These are the folks who made it possible for the New York Times to print the Pentagon Papers.  (Not to dwell on the unwilling notoriety which partner Leonard Boudin achieved back in 1970 when his Weathergirl daughter blew up the family home...)

In the conference call which followed, I could almost hear the skeletal click as their jaws dropped.  The next day, Eric Lieberman and Terry Gross of Rabinowitz, Boudin met with Acid Phreak, Phiber Optik, and Scorpion.

The maddening trouble with writing this account is that Whole Earth Review, unlike, say, Phrack, doesn't publish instantaneously.  Events are boiling up at such a frothy pace that anything I say about current occurrences surely will not obtain by the time you read this.  The road from here is certain to fork many times.  The printed version of this will seem downright quaint before it's dry.

But as of today (in early June of 1990), Mitch and I are legally constituting the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a two (or possibly three) man organization which will raise and disburse funds for education, lobbying, and litigation in the areas relating to digital speech and the extension of the Constitution into Cyberspace.

Already, on the strength of preliminary stories about our efforts in the Washington Post and the New York Times, Mitch has received an offer from Steve Wozniak to match whatever funds he dedicates to this effort.  (As well as a fair amount of abuse from the more institutionalized precincts of the computer industry.)

The Electronic Frontier Foundation will fund, conduct, and support legal efforts to demonstrate that the Secret Service has exercised prior restraint on publications, limited free speech, conducted improper seizure of equipment and data, used undue force, and generally conducted itself in a fashion which is arbitrary, oppressive, and unconstitutional.

In addition, we will work with the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and other organizations to convey to both the public and the policy-makers metaphors which will illuminate the more general stake in liberating Cyberspace.

Not everyone will agree.  Crackers are, after all, generally beyond public sympathy.  Actions on their behalf are not going to be popular no matter who else might benefit from them in the long run.

Nevertheless, in the litigations and political debates which are certain to follow, we will endeavor to assure that their electronic speech is protected as certainly as any opinions which are printed or, for that matter, screamed.  We will make an effort to clarify issues surrounding the distribution of intellectual property.  And we will help to create for America a future which is as blessed by the Bill of Rights as its past has been.

John Perry Barlow
Friday, June 8, 1990